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

Misery Loves Comedy


Hanks talks comedy.

Hanks talks comedy.

(2014) Documentary (Tribeca) Freddie Prinze Jr., Amy Schumer, Tom Hanks, Jim Gaffigan, Christopher Guest, Jon Favreau, Jason Reitman, Steve Coogan, Kathleen Madigan, Martin Short, Judd Apatow, Jimmy Fallon, Andy Richter, Jim Norton, Kelly Carlin, Marc Maron, Lewis Black, Bobby Cannavale, Kevin Smith, Lisa Kudrow, Matthew Perry, Chris Hardwick, Sam Rockwell, Jemaine Clement, Greg Proopst, Kumal Nanjiani, Jimmy Pardo, Maria Bamford. Directed by Kevin Pollak

Comedy is like a drug, both to the audience and the comedian. The audience uses the jokes as a means of escaping their daily lives, a way to find insight into those lives and a way to realize that just about nothing is above laughing at or about. The comedian feeds on their laughter, the laughter a validation of their craft and indirectly of themselves.

This documentary, directed by veteran comic, actor and impressionist Pollak who never appears on-camera but can be heard conducting the interview off-camera, has more than 40 subjects many of whom are on the A-list of stand-ups and several of whom have graduated on to bigger and better things. Some of the interviewees are comic actors, others directors of comedies. There are many more interviewees than we had room for at the top of this review, with Rob Brydon, Janeane Garafalo, Whoopi Goldberg, Jim Jeffries, Robert Smigel, Larry Miller, David Koechner, Stephen Merchant, Nick Swardson, Gregg Hughes, William H. Macy and hordes of others.

The interviews don’t really go into the mechanics of comedy – putting together an act, writing jokes and so on – but more into how people become professional stand-ups. It looks at the influences of the various comics, and at what life events prompted them to become comedians. Many of the people interview have traumas at some point in their lives that prompted them to go into comedy, using standup almost as therapy.

It isn’t required for a comedian to be miserable, muses one of them, but “you have to know misery.” That makes a lot of sense when you think about it; to understand what makes people laugh you also have to understand what makes them cry. A good comedian can do both.

You do get a real sense of the insecurities that haunt a lot of the comics; they talk about what it’s like to bomb, what it’s like to kill and how comics bond together hoping that they all succeed. Nobody likes to follow a comic that bombed; the audience is less primed to laugh. When you follow someone who just killed, it’s not only easier to get the audience to laugh but they also laugh harder. Laughter multiplies exponentially.

One thing that is kind of glaring; there is only one African-American comic and no Latino comics among the forty or so interviewees and quite frankly, there’s too many interviewees to begin with. I would have liked to have seen a little more diversity in the interviews which might have given us some different perspectives. A lot of the stories the comics told about not being accepted in high school and so on were a little bit too similar; getting the perspective of minority comics might have really made for a more three-dimensional take on comedy than what we received.

Yes, there are a lot of laughs here but there are some truly affecting moments, as when Prinze talks about his father’s suicide and how it affected he and his mother. Indirectly, Prinze Junior went into stand-up mainly because his grandfather urged him to “clean up what your father effed up” which for a young kid can be kind of a daunting burden, considering the fame his dad had. Bamford also tells us about the first time she talked about her time in a mental hospital onstage, prompting others in the audience to shout out their own experiences. It must be a very powerful thing, having the ability to help others heal through the gift of laughter. It’s also a nice little grace note that the movie was dedicated to Robin Williams, whose suicide likely had people in the business thinking about the link between misery and comedy.

This isn’t a complete primer on what makes us laugh and how the people who make us laugh do it, but it does give us some insight into the mind of the standup comedian and of the others who make us laugh on the big and small screens. It is said that laughter is the best medicine; this is essentially over-the-counter stuff but it gets the job done.

REASONS TO GO: Lots of laughs as you’d expect hanging out with comedians. Powerful in places. Gives the viewer a sense of what the life of a standup comedian is like and why people do it.
REASONS TO STAY: Too many interviewees and only one African-American one and no Latinos. A little bit too scattershot.
FAMILY VALUES: Some fairly foul language and some adult comedy.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Pollak is best known for his standup routine and celebrity impressions, most notably Peter Falk and William Shatner.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/9/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 29% positive reviews. Metacritic: 50/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Aristocrats
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT: The Water Diviner

The Eclipse


The Eclipse

Iben Hjejele gets another awkward call from a psychic service while Ciaran Hinds tries to pretend he doesn’t notice

(2009) Romance (Magnolia) Ciaran Hinds, Iben Hjejle, Aidan Quinn, Jim Norton, Eanna Hardwicke, Hannah Lynch, Avian Egan, Mia Quinn, Billy Roche, Valerie Spelman, Jean Van Sinderen-Law, Hilary O’Shaughnessy, Declan Nash. Directed by Conor McPherson

 

Grief is one of the most powerful of human emotions. It can affect us physically, turn us into basket cases emotionally and mentally. We all deal with it in different ways and sometimes it overwhelms us, no matter how well-balanced we might be normally. We never know how we’ll react until it becomes our time to grieve.

It is Michael Farr’s (Hinds) time to grieve. A gentle good-natured shop teacher in a small but bucolic Irish village, his wife Sarah (Lynch) passed away from cancer two years previously. Now he is struggling to raise their two sons alone. As if that weren’t enough, his father-in-law Thomas (Hardwicke) is also dying in a nursing home. Michael does his best to be attentive but his time is limited.

That’s because it’s also time for the town’s literary festival, one of the highlights of their year. Michael has volunteered to ferry various authors around the village for the length of the festival, becoming something of a personal assistant to them. His main charge is Lena Morrell (Hjejle), a noted author of supernatural tales. That’s a godsend to Michael because he’s begun to have some supernatural visitations of his own, not only from his dead wife but from his father-in-law as well.

Lena has some ghosts of her own, mainly in the form of Nicholas Holden (Quinn), a bestselling American author who is, to put it bluntly, a drunken jackass. He had a fling with Lena at a similar literary conference a few years ago and ever since has been something of a stalker, feeling that there is a relationship between them. For her own part, Lena views it as a mistake she made but is too nice to tell the married Nicholas to go take a long walk off a short pier which is probably a lot nicer than Nicholas deserves.

She has begun to grow attracted to the quiet, grief-stricken Irishman who shows her kindness and respect. Nicholas has noticed this and has grown rather jealous. And the apparitions that are haunting Michael are growing more and more disturbing and threatening by the day.

This isn’t a movie that follows conventions. Yes, it tells a story but not the way you might be used to. There are things that happen, there is a beginning and a middle but the end is not so much a denouement as it is a stopping point. And I kind of like it that way. It unfolds at a pace that is its own, on the slow side for those ADHD sorts that make up most of the movie audience these days. It will drive them absolutely batshit.

And because of that, they’ll miss a performance by Hinds that shows why he is so in demand as a character actor. He has the kind of talent to carry a movie on his own as he does here – he just doesn’t have the dashing lead actor kind of face and build. These sorts of generalizations tend to make Hollywood look for stories that only happen to good-looking people, ignoring the ordinary and the less beautiful. Maybe that’s why those in the indie community feel that mainstream Hollywood is so out of touch.

Musing aside, Quinn also gives a damn good performance (and yes, he’s one of the pretty boys Hollywood usually goes for). It’s not a pleasant character and Quinn doesn’t pull any punches (literally) with him. There’s a drunken brawl Nicholas gets into that is note-perfect; it’s not two fighters facing off but two men whaling away on each other. They both grunt like walruses as they launch haymakers and miss. It’s a pretty realistic fight, the sort you really see in pubs and bars.

There’s also the romance with Hjejle, who is kind of caught up in a triangle. It’s not the usual love triangle; she clearly isn’t in love with either man, although she could potentially fall for Michael; it’s just that they live in two completely different and separate worlds. There’s an unspoken element of tragedy – that familiar tragedy we all undergo at some point in our lives when we meet someone we want to love but is completely wrong for us.

That said, there’s the elements of horror that grow in scope as the movie develops; from simple half-glimpsed figures to rotting corpses. I don’t quite know what to make of it; part of me wants to think that it’s more symbolic than anything else. I don’t think Michael is having a nervous breakdown although that’s certainly one interpretation. Still, it remains unsettling and keeps the audience off-balance which in and of itself isn’t necessarily a negative.

Where the movie fails is that it shows a good deal of passion – Michael’s grief, Nicholas’ obsession with Lena – but didn’t inspire any in me. I suspect I will like this movie more as time goes by, particularly if I choose to see it a second time which at this point is problematic. Still, it did at least bring about some intellectual stimulation which is more than a lot of films that purport to do. I’ll say see it, but only if you’re in the mood for thoughtfulness.

WHY RENT THIS: Strong performances by Hinds and Quinn. Not conventionally told; keeps the audience off-balance throughout.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Occasionally slow-paced. Fails to generate much more than intellectual curiosity.

FAMILY VALUES: As befits a story with supernatural elements there are some images that might be frightening, particularly to the sensitive. There is also a smattering of bad language.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The movie was filmed in the village of Cobh in County Cork.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $159,852 on a $3M production budget; the film failed to make back its production costs at the box office.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?

FINAL RATING: 5.5/10

NEXT: What to Expect When You’re Expecting