"Dirty Tricks" confirms one of the painful truths of "Getting Straight": no good can come of locating Elliott Gould in a collegiate setting. Time has not been kind to Gould, so it's sadder to encounter him on campus a faded decade later. Promoted from teaching assistant to professor, he looks even more grotesquely out of place and out of luck.
The campus in this film, opening today at are theaters, is supposed to be Harvard, perhaps the greatest slur the movies have ever conferred on that institution. Cast as a history teacher, Gould invalidates his profession as soon as he opens his mouth and introduces the subject of the American Revolution: "1776! They were people who cared! They gave a s---!" This ineffable exclamation is soon trumped by the following Outline of History: "A battle takes place between the rich, who have power -- George III -- and the poor, who have no power -- the colonists." Where did Harvard find this dazzling intellect?
Or, for that matter, where'd they find Rich Little, who plays a colleague in the history department? Little's character is differentiated from Gould's by an opportunistic streak -- he's been plugging his new book, "Our Founding Fathers: A Sexual Expose'," on every obliging talk show. Little's material frequently suggests that Bob Hope may have been the first choice for the role. For example, contemplating a broken window in Gould's home, Little cracks, "I've heard of air-conditioning before, but this is ridiculous."
But seriously, Gould is threatened with abduction and assassination after it becomes known that he was the last person to speak to a murdered student, a young man trying to peddle a purloined document concerning George Washington. According to the victim, this item will "turn the whole U.S. upside down on its a--." The contents turn out to be preposterous rather than upsetting. Nevertheless, Gould deals with this historical McGuffin in such a cavalier way -- by destroying it -- that one may derive a perverse amusement from concluding that it must have been authentic after all.
Between tussles with competing facetious menaces -- a pair of butch thugs who look and dress alike and a male-female gangster tandem -- Gould cultivates an affair with Kate Jackson, a tenacious TV newscaster. The cutest aspect of her character: She resides in a posh apartment located over a porn parlor in the Boston tenderloin.
Inferior comic merchandise in every respect, "Dirty Tricks" typifies the sort of loser that now creeps into the suburbs unnanounced for a week or two before ending up as filler on Home Box Office. To put it starkly, "Dirty Tricks" is so shabby that it almost makes "Foul Play" look classy.