Looking for a kinder, gentler David Spade?

"Dickie Roberts: Former Child Star" is the answer.

Sure, Spade is his old wise-cracking, sarcastic self, but the film has a sweeter core that pulls softer punches than some of his previous films ("Tommy Boy" and "Joe Dirt") and still remains entertaining.

Spade plays the clueless Dickie Roberts who starred in the fictional "The Glimmer Gang" TV series. With the cancellation of the show in the '70s he has since fallen into the trap of many child stars: Known for their cute comebacks or signature one-liners, as adults they are relegated to the dregs of Hollywood society and become the butt of Trivial Pursuit questions.

The film opens and closes with segments of "E's True Hollywood Story" that tell the behind-the-scenes story of Dickie's life.

Having grown up on a Hollywood set, Dickie didn't have a normal childhood. His mother, played by Doris Roberts, is horrifyingly nonchalant about the neglectful way she treated him as a child. His unusual upbringing is the basis for his quirky lifestyle. Dickie spends his days parking cars as a valet and his spare time trying to obtain auditions for roles that will bring him back into the public consciousness.

He decides that a role in an upcoming Rob Reiner film will bring back his career. After finagling his way into Reiner's office, Reiner tells Dickie that he isn't right for the role because he isn't a normal person. Dickie is willing to do anything for the part, so he hires himself a "normal" family, the Finneys, to relive his childhood.

Of course, this prompts the question: What is normal? The Finneys appear normal. Grace (Mary McCormack) and George (Craig Bierko) make an attractive pair and their kids Sam (Scott Terra) and Sally (Jenna Boyd) are wholesome, blond angels.

While the Finneys don't have fame, drug or alcohol problems, like Dickie's family did, there are other issues to contend with, such as George's nonappearance at the dinner table, Grace's inability to stand up for herself and Sam's getting bullied at school.

Spade, who also co-wrote the movie, plays Dickie surprisingly straight. Underlying the humor (there are plenty of laugh-out-loud moments, as well as some that call for an exaggerated eye roll) is a sentimental plotline about overcoming an abusive childhood. But never fear, Spade's signature one-liners and crass sense of humor have a hefty presence.

A couple of the funnier scenes involve a poker night with a "Who's Who" of child star has-beens, a "ghost" story about "The Day the Sitcom Got Canceled" and a debacle concerning the "devil" rabbit next door.

"Dickie Roberts: Former Child Star" reminded me of Adam Sandler's "The Wedding Singer," which gently pokes fun of the '80s while celebrating the decade at the same time. Coincidentally, Sandler is one of the producers for "Dickie Roberts." Spade takes a similar stance with this film. Child stars such as Emmanuel Lewis (formerly of "Webster") Danny Bonaduce (formerly of "The Partridge Family") and Barry Livingston (formerly of "The Brady Bunch") are sprinkled liberally throughout the film.

The humor regarding these child stars is self-depreciating, but not mean. They have grown up, moved on with their lives and wish the rest of the world could see them that way.

I doubt Spade set out to give child stars a voice, but in "Dickie Roberts" he may have inadvertently created a film that tickles not only the funny bone, but the heart a bit as well.

Dickie Roberts: Former Child StarRated - PG-13

for crude and sex-related humor, language and drug references

Starring: David Spade, Mary McCormack, Scott Terra and Jenna Boyd

Director: Sam Weisman

Length: 99 minutes

Now playing at: Astoria Gateway Cinemas

Short take: David Spade co-writes and stars in this film about a former child star who hires himself a family to gain a sense of normalcy for an upcoming role. While Spade's signature sarcastic sense of humor is present, the film itself is more sentimental and more entertaining than Spade's usual fare.

Rating: 3 stars

Rating system:

4 stars: Absolutely the best

3 stars: Good entertainment

2 stars: Wait for the video

1 star: Don't waste your time

Movie Trivia: In what film did David Spade make his film debut?

Movie Trivia answer: "Police Academy 4: Citizens on Patrol" (1987)

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