In the old days, movie stardom often led to overwork and overexposure. Today, it sometimes triggers a disappearing act.
It's been six years since Rodney Dangerfield's last starring vehicle, "Back to School," yet his new film, "Ladybugs" (which opened Friday citywide) is so weirdly off-center it already seems like a relic.
The subject matter--a desperate salesman forced by his boss to coach a young girl's soccer team--gets weirdly distasteful at times. The movie's basic joke involves cross-dressing: Dangerfield's hyper-anxious Chester Lee recruits his fiancee's athletic son, Matthew (Jonathan Brandis), to pose as "Martha." Matthew accepts because he's smitten with a potential teammate, the boss's lissome daughter.
Though it's basically a kids' movie with a cartoonish structure, it's laced with lewd innuendo: jokes that suggest teen-age sex, homosexuality and even pedophilia. The core of the humor is raunchy, but the tone is sunny and even-tempered. It even tries to go for a few inspirational moments: feminist statements or sermonettes about overcoming fear and realizing potential.
For a movie that begins with what seems to be a parody of a Werner Erhard est session, that's an interesting switch. But "Ladybugs"--whose frowzily distant ancestor seems to be the Walter Matthau-Tatum O'Neal comedy, "The Bad News Bears"--has that special brand of post-1970s shamelessness. It's about sex, money, winning and getting ahead, but it's villains are a greedy businessman and a machismo-crazed opposing coach. (It also pokes fun at the boss' snobbish, shallow wife while drooling over her tight skirts.)
If Dangerfield's Chester defies his boss, the boss loves it. The movie says that women don't need men to be a success, then flip-flops for a final gag--involving the Dodgers' Tommy Lasorda, no less. "Ladybugs" is like a lot of movies in the last decade: It says that the system is corrupt and silly and stupid, then celebrates its hero's success in crashing it.
As Chester, Dangerfield is closer to his old tight-suit, eye-bulging, arm-flailing persona than we've seen in years. Jack Benny once called Dangerfield's comic shtick--"I tell you I can't get no respect"--one of the heaviest in the business. But after Miller Lite commercials made him a national star, some of his movies turned his character into something else: a rich boor and salty vulgarian who had it all and flaunted it, who didn't care about respect, because he didn't need it.
"Ladybugs" takes Dangerfield back to his roots, sort of, returning him to paranoia and panic. Yet, even though Sidney J. Furie is a better director than he's had before, and though the producers are, amazingly, Al Ruddy and Gray Frederickson of "The Godfather," the movie itself has the stale, slick, worked-over look of standard studio product.
'Ladybugs' Rodney Dangerfield: Chester Lee Jackee: Julie Benson Jonathan Brandis: Matthew/Martha Ilene Graff: Bess
A Paramount Pictures presentation of a Ruddy & Morgan production. Director Sidney J. Furie. Producers Albert S. Ruddy, Andre E. Morgan. Executive producer Gray Frederickson. Screenplay Curtis Burch. Cinematographer Dan Burstall. Editor John W. Wheeler. Costumes Isis Mussenden. Music Richard Gibbs. Production design Robb Wilson King. Running time: 1 hour, 32 minutes.