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Baby Steps 

There have been so many horror stories about the plight of former child actors, it's refreshing to see a film about it -- a fictional film, mind you -- that celebrates them. Well, maybe celebrates is a mite off. It makes fun of them, but does so with a little bit of heart.

As another vehicle for David Spade, we once again get the story of an acerbic fellow who's having a rough time in life, but only wants to be happy and to make things nicer for himself.

Spade plays the title character, who, as a kid back in the '70s, was part of the cast of The Glimmer Gang, one of those formulaic TV shows that viewers glommed onto for a while, then quietly went away. As did Dickie Roberts, who's been dreaming of a comeback. But while making a living as a valet who parks other actors' cars, the closest he's been to coming back is taking part in a celebrity boxing match with miniscule Emmanuel Lewis, who beats the living you-know-what out of him.

It's a great enough gag just seeing Lewis after all these years -- as, of course, is the fact that he's the superior fighter. But his presence is just a clue to what's coming in this sweet, uneven, sometimes floundering movie. The story is about Dickie's hopes for getting a role in a Rob Reiner film. But the audition -- yes, Reiner plays himself -- doesn't go as he'd hoped. He's told that he needs more of his inner child in the part. The problem, as everyone who reads any supermarket tabloid knows, is that child actors didn't have childhoods. The solution is to find a family that will take Dickie in -- he can pay from the advance he has for his autobiography -- and show him what being a kid is all about.

Spade gives it his all. He completely immerses himself in the role. Not a second goes by in which you don't fully believe that he's doing this thing in order to better himself. When his script calls for him to be a wise-ass with the two kids, Sam (Scott Terra) and Sally (Jenna Boyd), he does so, to the degree that kids in the audience might want to boo him. When he (literally) dives into some slapstick routines involving both a bicycle and a Slip 'n' Slide, it's a wonder that he didn't walk off the set with big welts (there might have been a stunt double in some scenes, but absolutely not in others).

But there are just too many problems that go along with his solid performance. It's not the fault of the kid actors who are playing the kids; they're quite good, and not the least bit precocious. And the actress playing Grace, their mom (Mary McCormack), takes a tough and possibly thankless role and makes her character real and sympathetic.

No, the problems are with the script. Maybe the net was thrown a little too wide. The story jumps from Dickie's predicament at the beginning, over to some time with his useless manager (Jon Lovitz, slumming it), in and out of some time with Reiner, and then into the start-and-stop situation in his "new family's" home.

Side plotlines start and stop without coming to any conclusion. After what seems to be a couple of weeks of living with them, Dickie wanders down to breakfast one morning and tries to have a cup of coffee. But "mom" says no, young boys don't drink coffee. It would have made lots more sense if that scene was done the first morning he was there, not way down the line. But then it's dropped in without any payoff. And in one totally random moment, Grace says something that makes her appear to be some kind of religious freak. But that's never addressed again. It's the sloppiness of the writing that's the biggest bother.

Luckily, that weak part only exists in the middle of the film. The first 20 minutes or so are very funny, partly because the hint of cameos that starts with Emmanuel Lewis grows exponentially. And it's not just former child actors. Leif Garrett shows up, as does Brendan Fraser. But before long, the list of who this film is about does start to lengthen. Danny Bonaduce appears, as does Barry Williams, thereby covering the Brady Bunch-Partridge Family contingent. When Corey Feldman comes by, this thing starts spinning out of control... in a good way.

Then the hour in the middle goes unconvincingly by. But when the expected happy ending comes along, something remarkable happens. Let's leave it this way: If you thought the early cameos were good, make sure to stay for the credits. The idea was to get a few more former child stars for a finale, and it worked. Apparently, when one real-life child star heard another was doing it, they started lining up. My only disappointment: They got Wally, but they didn't get the Beav.

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