Sheer unbridled shamelessness is virtually never a replacement for the standard cinematic virtues. But it's still hard to dismiss the brass Tom Arnold puts into his vanity-once-removed project The Kid & I. Shamelessly manipulating his audience, wallowing in his highly questionable premise, and above all mocking himself, Arnold bulls ahead enthusiastically and without reservation, and in the process, he brings something like dignity to one of the least dignified movies in recent history.
First seen cheerfully carrying out an elaborate suicide plan, Arnold plays a washed-up actor who is totally not Tom Arnold, really, though he did co-star as Arnold Schwarzenegger's hapless sidekick in True Lies, and his career dried up when his far more successful producer wife divorced him. With his career in the toilet, Arnold is eager to die, but his agent (Henry Winkler) presents him with a lifesaving project: California billionaire Joe Mantegna wants Arnold to write and direct a True Lies-like action film, starring Mantegna's teenage son. The twist: The son has cerebral palsy, and his speech and movement are both impaired, making him an awkward action hero. The further twist: It's all a true story, sort of. The son is played by real-life cerebral palsy sufferer Eric Gores, whose father, California tech billionaire Alec Gores, did persuade Arnold to write a screenplay for his actor-wannabe son.
A vanity project catering to the untried son of a man with the money to make anything happen would be awkward enough even without Gores' disability, but Arnold revels in the film's obvious train-wreck qualities, slopping layers of irony, parody, cynicism, and postmodern self-referentialism onto slapstick violence and jokes about Rosie O'Donnell's butt, and somehow making it all seem reasonably good-natured in spite of the lowest-common-denominator content. The only enduring source of unease is the way the film's characters fall over themselves to cater to Gores' every ludicrous, unrealistic, self-serving desire, all with the understanding that his displeasure could trigger a backlash from his paycheck-signing dad. Gores is like the little boy from The Toy, with Arnold serving as his Richard Pryor. But instead of waking up to his own hefty privilege, he's presented unironically as a god among men; he's not only terrific at everything he does on- and offscreen, he's also the sappy emotional heart of a film that's much funnier when it's heartlessly mocking itself. The Kid & I mostly survives a horrifically exploitative premise by slaughtering its own sacred cows. But its cash cow is the one thing it doesn't dare mock and nothing Arnold dares do can quite get around that.