The Comedian (2017)


Robert De Niro kills it in an entirely different context.

(2017) Dramedy (Sony Classics) Robert De Niro, Leslie Mann, Harvey Keitel, Edie Falco, Danny DeVito, Patti LuPone, Charles Grodin, Cloris Leachman, Lucy DeVito, Billy Crystal, Veronica Ferres, Lois Smith, Jessica Kirson, Jim Norton, Jimmie Walker, Brett Butler, Gilbert Gottfried, Hannibal Buress, Bill Boggs, Nick Di Paolo, Freddie Roman, Greer Barnes, Sheng Wang, Aida Rodriguez  Directed by Taylor Hackford

 

The life of a stand-up comic is nothing like you might think it is. Glamour is rare for one of those worthies; while someone like a Kevin Hart might work arenas and stay in first class hotels for the most part when stand-ups tour at all they play small clubs and stay in fairly cheap hotels or worse. Sometimes they get a sitcom and things get better but what happens when the sitcom is canceled?

Jackie Burke (De Niro) is living that particular dream. Once on top of the world in the successful sitcom Eddie’s Home back in the 80s, he is back to doing club gigs in his native New York and mostly what audiences want to hear are his signature Eddie catch phrases. At this point Jackie wants to distance himself from Eddie as much as possible but when hecklers push him into a corner and it turns out those same hecklers are trying to goad him deliberately for a vlog, Jackie loses it and ends up getting charged with assault and battery.

Jackie does 30 days jail time and then is given community service at a soup kitchen. The video of his blow up has itself blown up so his long-suffering agent (Falco) can’t get him a bar mitzvah let alone a paying gig. Still, things are looking up – he meets a young woman named Harmony (Mann) who is a co-worker at the soup kitchen. The two hit it off as friends and he takes her to a comedy show where he is asked to go on stage when a comedian cancels at the last minute; his set is one of the best of his career and that starts going viral. Suddenly, things are looking up.

Being Jackie Burke however means that if things are looking up, he must find a way to sabotage himself. It doesn’t help that Harmony has a father (Keitel) who wants her to come back to Florida and work at one of the homes for the elderly that he owns; dad is a bit of a jerk to put it mildly and, well, you can guess the rest.

In fact, that’s a big problem here; you can guess the rest and often do. De Niro remains one of the great actors of his generation and I don’t think he’s ever disgraced himself in a single performance; he is solid enough here and is convincing as a stand-up performer with an anger issue. He is almost always the best part of any movie he’s in and that’s surely the case here.

Mann is herself a capable actress whose appearance in her husband Judd Apatow’s films have been stepping stones to better and more noticeable roles. Some of her dramatic range is hinted at here and I sure wouldn’t mind if we saw her in a wider variety of roles than we’ve heretofore seen her in. Considering the age difference portrayed on screen, the romance feels a bit awkward and at times unbelievable but Mann’s a pro and you can see that there is some chemistry between her and De Niro. She performs more than capably in a movie where she deserved a little better; count me as a fan.

The relationship between colleagues in the stand-up community is very much love-hate. They are competitors often for the same jobs, but at the same time they have the bonds of going into the trenches together, the shared experiences of deprivation, disrespect and dysfunction. They can all relate to one another and there’s often mutual respect but they also heckle each other mercilessly backstage. The movie captures this bond (with a number of working stand-ups playing themselves) beautifully.

The movie falls apart at the end. I won’t go into details but all the good will the movie manages to build up through the first hour plus is wasted with an ending that is equal parts ludicrous and demeaning to the audience. When the lights came up I saw more than one gape-jawed expression on an audience member’s face and I’m sure my own expression wasn’t too dissimilar. Sadly, Hackford and company ignored one of the first rules of comedy; never ever squash your own punchline.

REASONS TO GO: A really terrific cast that for once isn’t wasted drives the film. The depiction of the lives of stand-ups is convincing.
REASONS TO STAY: Some of the scenes feel a little bit awkward and overly familiar. The ending is preposterous.
FAMILY VALUES: There’s plenty of profanity including some fairly crude sexual references.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: De Niro received stand-up comedy training from Jessica Kirson, whose signature move – talking to herself sotto voce – is one he adapted for the movie.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/19/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 25% positive reviews. Metacritic: 40/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Punchline
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT: I Am Not Your Negro

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So I Married an Axe Murderer


Scotland has a love-hate relationship with Mike Myers.

Scotland has a love-hate relationship with Mike Myers.

(1993) Comedy (TriStar) Mike Myers, Nancy Travis, Anthony LaPaglia, Amanda Plummer, Alan Arkin, Brenda Fricker, Matt Doherty, Charles Grodin, Phil Hartman, Debi Mazar, Steven Wright, Patrick Bristow, Cintra Wilson, Luenell Campbell, Michael Richards, Michael G. Hagerty, Jessie Nelson, Bob Sarlatte, Ken Grantham, Greg Germann, Holly Lewis. Directed by Thomas Schlamme

Do we really know the person we’re closest to? After all, it’s very easy to create a facade of normalcy. We can say anything about ourselves and the person who loves us will believe us. After all, why should we lie?

Charlie McKenzie (Myers) is a San Francisco hipster who writes beat-like poetry by night and…well, we’re not quite sure what he does by day. He has been through one abortive relationship after another, each one ending with the terminally paranoid and commitment-phobic Charlie finding a reason to end things. His friend Tony Giardino (LaPaglia) urges him to loosen up but Charlie isn’t inclined to.

That is, until he meets Harriet (Travis) in a butcher shop and it’s chemistry at first sight. Things are going really well as they get to know each other and Charlie thinks at long last this might be the one. Even her little sister Rose (Plummer) is nice.

Then, Charlie is reading one of his mother’s (Fricker) Weekly World News papers (her sole source of news and information) and happens upon an article about Mrs. X, a woman whose three husbands have all disappeared under mysterious circumstances – as has she. The more Charlie reads, the more he realizes that the facts about Mrs. X happen to match up with those Harriet has let slip.

Suddenly Charlie is certain that Harriet is Mrs. X and ends things with her, not wanting to end up as the fourth husband – and victim. Tony is just as certain that his friend is a wacko who is inventing yet another excuse to avoid committing to another person, albeit the most bizarre excuse yet. Then when someone confesses to being Mrs. X in Texas (all our X’s are in Texas), Charlie realizes what a fool he’s been and at the anniversary party of his mother and father (Myers again) he proposes. Nothing but smooth sailing ahead, right?

This was Myers’ first film after the lucrative Wayne’s World established him as a movie star and it was a critical and commercial flop at the time. Over the years the opinion about this gem have been revised and now it has a bit of a cult following and I for one couldn’t be happier about it.

While Charlie is pretty damn quirky, this is Myers’ most “normal” role to date and quite frankly I wish he’d do more of them. He is really likable as Charlie and has a terrific chemistry for Travis who is one of the more underrated actresses of the last 20 years, although she’s getting a regular paycheck these days on the Tim Allen sitcom Last Man Standing. Myers also does his Scottish eccentric role to perfection as Charlie’s dad. “Heed.. Newspaper. Now!” he bellows at his other son, the poor set-upon Doherty, lobbing bon mots at the oversized noggin of his son.

There are plenty of cameos ranging from Arkin as Tony’s way-too-sensitive captain and the late great Phil Hartman as a creepy park ranger at Alcatraz to Steven Wright as a laconic pilot and Charles Grodin as an uncooperative driver whose car is commandeered. The city of San Francisco is shown off as effectively as it has been in any recent movie – watch this one and you might just want to move there.

This is as charming a movie as Myers has done. He’d go on from here to the Austin Powers franchise and the Love Guru misstep but one look at this will convince you that even with the success he’s had he could have gone much farther if he’d continued on the road of movies like this. Sadly, the box office underperformance convinced him otherwise although Austin Powers fan might be happy enough that it did. This is one of those underappreciated comic gems of the 90s that may well have fallen below your radar; it’s well worth a look if you haven’t seen it (and it has a fabulous soundtrack to boot).

WHY RENT THIS: One of Myers’ best. Underrated. Terrifically quirky and cute.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: A bit dated and relies too much on shtick.

FAMILY VALUES:  There’s some bad language, a bit of nudity, some sexual situations and what they called “mock terror.”

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The Poet’s Corner Hotel scenes were filmed at the Dunsmuir estate which is actually in the Oakland hills east of San Francisco, not North of the city as depicted in the film.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $11.6M on an unknown production budget.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Haunted Honeymoon

FINAL RATING: 8.5/10

NEXT: Good Ol’ Freda

Rosemary’s Baby


Rosemary's Baby
And baby makes three.

(Paramount) Mia Farrow, John Cassavetes, Ruth Gordon, Sidney Blackmer, Ralph Bellamy, Maurice Evans, Angela Dorian, Elisha Cook Jr., Patsy Kelly, Charles Grodin. Directed by Roman Polanski

The trouble with evil is that it is unpredictable. There are rarely situations in which you can point to something and say “that’s evil” and avoid it; sometimes evil emerges from subtle and unassuming sources – even things that we would normally consider good.

Guy Woodhouse (Cassavetes) is a struggling actor living in New York. He and his wife Rosemary (Farrow) are looking for an apartment that is bigger than the one they live in because they are planning to have a family soon. They find the Bramford on Central Park, a tony address and find the perfect apartment with a gorgeous view that had just become available.

While many of the residents of the Bramford are elderly, Rosemary still has friends from her previous life, none closer than Hutch (Evans), a writer of children’s books. While Rosemary paints and decorates her new apartment, she does meet one young lady, Terry (Dorian), an ex-drug addict who has been taken in as a ward by a couple that lives next door – Roman (Blackmer) and Minnie Castevet (Gordon).

Shortly after that, Terry commits suicide and the Castevets and Woodhouses meet for the first time. The Castevets invite their new neighbors over for dinner afterwards when Rosemary speaks kindly to Minnie about their recently deceased ward. Guy is reluctant at first – he’s just lost out on a plum role to another actor – but he relents and he actually winds up enjoying the company of the much-travelled Roman and his busybody wife.

Despite Guy’s career shortcomings, he and Rosemary decide it’s the right time to get pregnant. Minnie brings over a chocolate mousse that seems tasty but winds up knocking Rosemary out. She has a strange dream afterward of being raped by a beast-like demon. Soon after that, she discovers that she’s pregnant. Her obstetrician, Dr. Hill (Grodin) puts her on vitamins but Minnie won’t hear of it. She’s close with Dr. Abe Saperstein (Bellamy), one of the best-known obstetricians in New York if not the world. She arranges for Rosemary to be one of his patients.

Although Rosemary is suffering from a weird, constant pain, Dr. Saperstein tells her that it’s normal and refuses to prescribe anything for it. In the meantime, the actor that had gotten the part Guy wanted had mysteriously gone blind and the part was now Guy’s. It turns out to be precisely the break Guy was looking for.

Rosemary and Guy are deliriously happy, but all isn’t as it seems, particularly those who seem the friendliest towards them. A monstrous conspiracy is afoot and Rosemary becomes paranoid, particularly when people she knows begin to die off mysteriously. Soon she realizes that she’s alone against a powerful evil, one that wants her unborn baby – but for what purpose?

This is a classic of the horror genre, and in many ways it’s not even a horror movie. Director Polanski, for whom this was his first American film, creates an atmosphere of growing menace that becomes so palpable even the viewer at home gets caught up in it. There isn’t much gore (mostly seen in the death of Terry) and all the violence happens off-screen for the most part (even the rape is more suggested than seen) but still you’re given a firm grasp of the evil surrounding Rosemary and find yourself immersed in her struggle to escape it.

The movie was based on a noted bestseller by Ira Levin which I’ve actually read – the movie follows it nearly word for word (legend has it that because Polanski had never adapted another work for the screen before, he didn’t realize that he could make changes of his own). As the movie progresses, the outcome seems inevitable but still there’s a twist at the end that back in 1968 when the movie was released took audiences completely by surprise – most modern audiences however are aware of the twist simply because it has been so widely associated with the movie since then. That’s a shame because the movie works much better if you aren’t aware how it ends.

Even so, the movie’s main weapon is Farrow. Her performance as Rosemary is so ordinary, so naïve but so completely believable that she nails Polanski and Levin’s vision of Rosemary as the Girl Next Door caught up in a horror greater than she can imagine. By the time she realizes what’s going on, it’s far too late.

Gordon and Blackmer also give fine supporting performances as the Castevets; they have the right attitude to be the consummate New York elderly busybody couple, Gordon’s accent almost Yiddish in places. While the characters are certainly products of their time, they still manage to give off no menace other than in underlying ways that when you look back at the movie, you realize they were creepy all along and you just didn’t realize it. It’s amazing work by any standard.

While this movie is well over forty years old, it has held up well. I watched it again the other night while Da Queen lay sleeping (she finds horror movies too disturbing) and realized that if it had been released last Friday, it would still be just as effective today as it was back then. Horror movies rarely get any better than this one.

WHY RENT THIS: Polanski creates a mood so creepy and troubling that the viewer feels the whole time that something is completely wrong.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: There is little gore and only a few scenes of outright horror which may not meet the standards of modern horror fans.

FAMILY VALUES: While relatively tame by our standards, it does depict a rape and there is a good deal of talk about female pregnancy as well as a good deal of smoking and drinking. There is also some female nudity. While it received an R rating at the time of its release, I would think that it would be adequate viewing for most mature teenagers.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The voice on the phone of the actor who had gone blind, clearing the way for Guy to get the part was an uncredited Tony Curtis. Farrow was unaware who she was talking to, although she recognized the voice she couldn’t place the name. Also, the movie was filmed at the Dakota, the apartment complex on Central Park later made infamous by being the location where John Lennon was murdered.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: The pickings are rather slim. There’s an interesting retro interview with Polanski, producer Robert Evans and production designer Richard Sylbert. There is also an original making-of feature that is fascinating as a historical artifact.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: Not available.

FINAL RATING: 9/10

TOMORROW: Secretariat