Reviewed at the 2011 Tribeca Film Festival
Here's the trouble with steps eight and nine in the twelve-step programs: some people don't want to be reminded. In Despicable Dick and Righteous Richard, Dick Kuchera--who was, by all accounts (including his own) a really terrible human being for most of his adult life--visits his first wife Nola, to apologize for his many infractions. At the beginning of the film, she says, without a trace of irony or malice, "I wish I'd never met him." When he starts listing all of the things he did to her, she pulls back: "I didn't want to remember some of this." And there you have the paradox of this kind of thing--to some extent, it's not actually for the recipient of the apology and/or amends. It's to unburden the offender, not the offended. "It's better to remember the good times," Nola insists. She may have a point.
First-time director Joshua Neale accompanies Dick on his quest to make right those he has wronged. "I used to be a Dick," he says at the beginning of the film, "and the essence of this journey is to try to be more of a Richard." In the process of assembling his sins, Neale ends up putting together a kind of biography of a common man, albeit one who made many, many poor choices. Among them: ignoring his children, exploiting his family, sleeping with his brother-in-law's fiancé, and numerous other infidelities--including this whole nightmare with his second wife and the woman he was with until the day before the wedding, which he then walked out of, and then proceeded to rotate between the two of them for years.
So yeah, he used to be a dick. What's not so certain is that he's not anymore. We meet his current girlfriend, and her teenage son, with whom Dick already has a strained relationship; the emo kid comes off, at first, like a little dirtbag--a sketch comedy stereotype of the "troubled teen." But later, when he says of Dick "the bastard's too good at getting people to do what he wants," we realize that the kid gets him in a way that others who should know better still don't.
Kuchera is a complicated guy, hard to either like or hate, and the documentary pulls us in close to him and dares us to decide. He's frequently funny and high-spirited (his favorite greeting is a triumphant "ta-da!"), and he's got a sense of humor about himself; a long-time friend--one of the few he's sill got--assures Dick that he's "absolutely nuts," and the pair share a good, hearty laugh.
But he also continues to harbor certain delusions, about himself and about his habits. When his daughter tearily presses him on a particularly humiliating moment that he inflicted on her mother, Dick shrugs that "there were a lot" of instances like that. She calls him on it right away, and good for her; to some degree, he uses the bulk of what he's done to bury the specific instances.
Much of this is fascinating, though in spite of the continuing expansion of his exploits, the apologetic conversations get more than a little repetitious: the awkwardness, the pauses, the confessions, the heavy sighs. At first, these encounters are riveting; after a while, they just become part of the cyclical nature of being in his sphere. What's worse, they wreak havoc on the picture's pace; it feels much longer than its 79 minutes.
At the end of the film--in what may or may not be a contrived attempt to create a "climax"--Dick gathers his entire portfolio of dysfunction (exes, kids, etc.) for a trip to Vegas and the Grand Canyon. It goes surprisingly well--and then there is an incident in the car on the way back, during which he is prickly and mean and irritating. It's like a little reminder: lest we forget, he's actually impossible. He's trying, though. You've got to give him that much.
Jason lives with his wife Rebekah and their daughter Lucy in New York. He holds an MA in Cultural Reporting and Criticism from NYU. He is film editor for Flavorwire and is a contributor to Salon, the Atlantic, and several other publications. His first book, Pulp Fiction: The Complete History of Quentin Tarantino's Masterpiece, was released last fall by Voyageur Press. He blogs at Fourth Row Center and is yet another critic with a Twitter feed.