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

The Last Laugh


Springtime for Hitler.

Springtime for Hitler.

(2016) Documentary (The Film Collaborative) Renee Firestone, Klara Firestone, Mel Brooks, Rob Reiner, Harry Shearer, Gilbert Gottfried, Sarah Silverman, David Steinberg, Larry Charles, Alan Zweibel, Etgar Keret, Carl Reiner, Robert Clary, David Cross, Lisa Lampinelli, Jake Ehrenreich, Zdenka Fantlova, Jeffrey Ross, Susie Essman, Abraham Foxman, Roz Weinman, Malala Sagal. Directed by Ferne Pearlstein

 

Humor is an intensely personal subject; everyone’s idea of what is funny and what is inappropriate varies, sometimes to astonishing degrees. There are always taboo subjects that even comics shy away from, but not all of them. There are subjects that some comics tackle that make even other comics a little bit uncomfortable.

This new documentary by Ferne Pearlstein tackles the interesting subject of what is inappropriate material for comics, concentrating on one of the most horrible events in human history – the Holocaust. More than 70 years have passed since Nazi Germany surrendered but there are plenty who think that jokes about it – even by Jewish comics – are wildly inappropriate. Even Mel Brooks, whose cult classic The Producers dropped jaws when it was released in 1967, says that there is a difference between jokes about the Holocaust and jokes about the Nazis.

Much of the film is devoted to Renee Firestone, an Auschwitz survivor who talks about cabaret shows in the camps used to keep the workers entertained and about the gallows humor employed by the prisoners to help make the days bearable. Other survivors of concentration camps take the opposite tack – the Holocaust was no laughing matter and that the prisoners couldn’t even crack a smile, let alone a joke.

I tend to side with Renee – humor is a mechanism that many humans use to cope with stress and what could be more stressful than living under the constant threat of death? Still, six million Jews and others died in the camps – can we joke about them without trivializing them, or upsetting those who lived in them?

These are the kind of questions that are brought up by various comedians of different eras – old school like Brooks and Carl Reiner, mid-school like David Steinberg and Gilbert Gottfried and more recent vintages like Lisa Lampinelli and David Cross. There are also writers like Alan Zweibel, Malala Sagal and Etgar Keret as well as Abraham Foxman of the Anti-Defamation League which monitors anti-Semitism in the media. Foxman has some strong opinions as to what is appropriate and what is not, some of which you may agree with or disagree with. I think it’s a telling point that when Foxman pooh-poohs the argument that some comics make that the jokes keep the Holocaust from being forgotten; Sarah Silverman ripostes that if we haven’t forgotten the Holocaust why do genocides continue to this day?

To the filmmaker’s credit, no side seems to be given advantage other than that of the Survivors themselves and particularly Firestone. She is the emotional centerpiece of the film and some of the most moving moments take place as she remembers being separated from her sister whom she never saw again and having to deal with the death of her husband much later in life. Robert Clary, who played a French prisoner of war in the comedy Hogan’s Heroes used his real-life experience in the concentration camps for his character and reveals almost casually of 13 members of his family to be arrested, he was the only one left alive by the end of the war. How does one survive that? Clary doesn’t say and perhaps it’s better that we don’t know.

Towards the end of the film other taboo subjects are tackled such as 9-11 and use of the “N” word but almost in so casual a manner that they might better have not been mentioned at all. Clearly the Holocaust is the big subject here and thus it should have remained. I suspect the filmmakers were aware that there might be some backlash “what, only the Jews have suffered?” which is completely unfair. Nobody’s saying that these other subjects aren’t important and shouldn’t be handled delicately but quite frankly, I think the filmmakers would have been better served sticking to the subject that brought them to the dance, as it were and use it maybe as a gateway to other taboos. Perhaps that was what they were trying to do but quite frankly I think it was a case of trying to do too much. That’s really the only issue I had with the film.

There are, of course, plenty of jokes here and quite a few of them will get you laughing. One of my favorite bits is the “Springtime for Hitler” musical number from the 1967 version of The Producers and the audience reaction shots which might be how some modern audiences in this era of political correctness might react to some of the humor here.

I’m a big believer in freedom of speech and comics, as Mel Brooks himself observes are the conscience of the country. They allow us to look at ourselves and how we react to things that are controversial and uncomfortable; restricting them with political correctness is an absolute abomination and one of the most things that as a liberal I’m most ashamed of my left-leaning friends. It is a healthy thing once in awhile to be outraged.

There is some thought-provoking stuff here and no ready answers. Like everything else, it’s all up to how you perceive things and what affects you. You may be offended by some of the jokes here – or you might laugh your tush off. Is there a line that cannot be crossed? I don’t know; maybe. Should only Jewish comics joke about the Holocaust or gay comics about AIDS or African-American comics about slavery and racism? There are those who think so; I do not. At the end of the day, we are all humans and if we believe that, truly believe that, then all experiences are shared experiences. While the Holocaust was aimed mainly at those of the Jewish faith, we can mourn the loss of these people because we believe we are all brothers and sisters; the loss of even a single Jew makes all of us less.

Sure, that’s a bit simplistic (and sorry this movie review has appeared to become a rant) but the message is that it’s harder to hate someone if you feel connected to them. If there were fewer divisions between us wouldn’t there be fewer reasons to hate? I’m not sure if that’s the message that these comedians are trying to send by joking about the Nazis or even the Holocaust but it’s a message that can be inferred and wouldn’t it be a better world indeed if we all looked at the world that way?

REASONS TO GO: The subject is truly thought-provoking. Some of the jokes are hysterical. There are a few moments that are heart-rending. Brooks is a national treasure.
REASONS TO STAY: Segments on 9-11 and other taboo subjects seemed a bit rushed and didn’t add anything to the film overall.
FAMILY VALUES: Here you will find plenty of profanity, humor that some might find inappropriate and a few images that are unsettling.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The movie made its world premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival in April of 2016.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/3/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 100% positive reviews. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Aristocrats
FINAL RATING: 8.5/10
NEXT: The Freedom to Marry

Don’t Think Twice


Nothing says kooky more than a wheel of Improv players.

Nothing says kooky more than a wheel of Improv players.

(2016) Dramedy (Film Arcade) Mike Birbiglia, Gillian Jacobs, Keenan-Michael Key, Kate Micucci, Tami Sagher, Emily Skeggs, Chris Gethard, Sondra James, Richard Kline, Sunita Mani, Steve Waltien, Kati Rediger, Pete Holmes, Richard Masur, Adam Pally, Lena Dunham, Maggie Kemper, Ben Stiller, Miranda Bailey, Seth Barrish, Erin Drake. Directed by Mike Birbiglia

 

Funny isn’t easy. If it was, everybody’d be a comedian. Of all the comedic disciplines, improvisation is one of the hardest. It requires quick thinking, a quicker wit and gluttony for punishment. Improv artists have a tendency to live hand to mouth and the odds of them making it are long indeed.

The Commune is a long-time improv group in New York City founded by Miles (Birbiglia) and currently consisting of MC Samantha (Jacobs) who is the girlfriend of Jack (Key), the most promising individual comedian in the group. Allison (Micucci) is an aspiring graphic artist and Lindsay (Sagher) smokes a whole lot of pot and is the daughter of wealthy parents who pay for her therapy. Finally, there’s Bill (Gethard), a kind of sad sack kind of guy who has a number of personal problems.

All of them harbor the ambition of getting an audition with Weekend Live (Saturday Night Live if they could have gotten the rights to use the name and footage). However, they’ve been hit with the bombshell that the run-down theater they’ve been using has been sold and is about to be converted to an Urban Outfitter; they have one month to get out.

But all is not lost. While they look for an affordable space, a couple of members of the Weekend Live group caught the group at a performance and have extended audition invitations – but only to Jack and Sam, largely because Jack grandstanded at the performance knowing that the cast members were there.

The group is happy for them, but it is happiness tinged with jealousy, anger and disappointment. Miles, who makes a great deal out of the fact that he had auditioned for the show ten years earlier and had been, as he puts it, “inches away” from the big time, is particularly out of sorts about it. He’s also teaching improv to pay the bills and beds his students whenever possible.

Bill is dealing with a family issue that is taking up much of his attention, although he is grateful for his fellow Commune-ists who surround him and make inappropriate jokes to keep his spirits up. However, as the days wind down, it turns out that Jack gets the gig at Weekend Live and Sam doesn’t, although she doesn’t necessarily see that as a bad thing for reasons that become clear later on in the film but you should be able to figure out without any problem. Now with Jack gone and the clock ticking, the group is beginning to disintegrate as it becomes clear that not everyone is going to have their dreams come true.

Birbiglia is a gifted stand-up comic and as his first time in the director’s chair for Sleepwalk With Me showed, he has some potential in that role as well. As in that film, his character here is not always the most pleasant of people – Miles is arrogant and a bit jealous of Jack’s success which only points out the lack of his own. He sleeps with students which is a major no-no even though the students he’s teaching are adults, and he puts down his friends with barbs that have just enough truth in them to bury themselves in the skin.

Key shows off his formidable talent here better than he has in anything other than his Comedy Central show with partner Jordan Peele. In many ways, Key mirrors his character; of all the actors here (other than Stiller, who makes a cameo as himself) he has the best chance to reach stardom. With more performances like this under his belt, he certainly will get a look from the studios and the networks.

Most of the main actors here have improv experience other than Jacobs and she underwent rigorous training in the art which as mentioned earlier is not as easy as it looks. As a team they work well together and the onstage footage has some pretty fun moments, but the drawback is that improv really is best experienced live; it rarely holds up as well on film. Still, the movie has an air of authenticity about it because of the experience of Birbiglia and his cast (as well as Seth Barrish, the co-writer who also appears as a Lorne Michaels-like figure in the film).

It is a dramedy so the moments of savory and sweet are fairly balanced out, although given the subject matter I would have appreciated a bit more comedy than drama. There is a little bit of tendency towards soap opera in the middle third as the relationships begin to collapse and the Commune begins to implode.

For all that, this is a solid film that has some wonderful moments (a discussion between Jack and Sam that makes it painfully clear that their relationship is over comes immediately to mind) as well as a few misfires. It’s definitely worth seeing, even if you aren’t into improv. The truth is that this is the kind of movie that might actually make you a fan, or at the very least, more respectful of those who practice the art.

REASONS TO GO: A glimpse of what goes into making an improv group work.
REASONS TO STAY: Could have used some more laughs.
FAMILY VALUES:  There’s plenty of swearing and a good deal of drug use.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT:  The cast performed as an improv troupe for two weeks prior to shooting. Some of the footage of their performances is used in the film.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 9/7/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 99% positive reviews. Metacritic: 83/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Punchline
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT: Our Little Sister

Too Hip for the Room


Making it in Hollywood can be a slimy business.

Making it in Hollywood can be a slimy business.

(2015) Drama (The Dreaming Tree) Kelly Monteith, Anthony Russell, Robert Dubac, Caroline Alexander, Jake Krickhan, Kip Addota, Franklyn Ajaye, Jay Brothers, Devin Dugan, Seamus O’Brien, Sam Kwasman, Isaiah Ervin, Donny Conn, Waylynn Pitts, Eugene Lebowitz, Nathan Hurd, Gregg Binkley, Evelyn Wu, Bridget McCarty, Briana Feehan. Directed by Oktay Oktabasi and Kelly Monteith

We make our beds in life through the choices we make. We choose a career that takes us away from our family and tell ourselves that we’re doing it for the family, only to discover that we’ve been away  so much we no longer have a family. Or we chase a dream so hard that it becomes an obsession, causing us to burn through family and friends along the way.

Jake Dietz (Monteith)  is a stand-up comedian who is on the downslide of his career; once a young Turk in the standup circuit and being considered for network sitcoms, he is reduced to taking rubber chicken corporate gigs in places like Moline, Illinois. He is struggling to make ends meet even though he drives a Mercedes, a remnant of better times.

Jake is divorced from Trish (Alexander) and together they have a son Patrick (Krickhan) who is autistic with the potential to be high-functioning except that his social skills are lacking. Patrick has a thing for fellow student Briana (Feehan) but doesn’t know how to approach her, which frustrates him. Jake wants to help but he’s also not exactly sure.

The school’s president, Dr. Hertzog (Brothers) is offering up a special program which seems perfectly suited for Jake, but the price is very high – fifteen grand to be exact. Wanting to give the best to his son, Jake starts looking in less desirable places for gigs, starting with his friend and a former standup himself, Stuart (Dubac) who has become an agent. In fact, Stuart got mutual friend Buzz (Dugan) a network sitcom that at one time Jake had been considered for until he turned it down because he thought it would be demeaning. Instead, it turned out to be a hit for Buzz and angry, Jake left Stuart’s agency and brought his best friend Art (Russell) with him.

But there is some hope. Stuart got Jake a small role on a TV show and another ex-comic friend, Danny (Conn) may have a slot on a corporate gig that would pay Jake the money he needs for the program. But despite another rage-fueled encounter with Stuart which may have derailed some of Jake’s hopes, something more promising lands in his lap after a really good gig that Jake does after a cancellation forces a local club owner to turn to Jake for help. However, taking that hope which might lead to Jake’s dreams finally being fulfilled would mean giving up the sure thing that would pay for his son’s treatment. What will Jake choose?

In the interest of full disclosure, I’ve been a big fan of Monteith’s since he was a young Turk on the standup circuit. In the intervening years he’s had a good deal of success, mostly in Britain (and yes, I’ve seen some of his BBC work in various outlets on the Internet and cable) but never quite made it to household name which I always thought was criminal; this is a very funny man and even though some might consider his style “old school” (which he comments upon in the movie) some of his standup sets here show that he hasn’t lost his touch.

There are also some of his fellow stand-ups of the late 80s and 90s like Addota and Ajaye who make brief appearances here which just reminds me that even funny young stand-ups become funny old stand-ups. Aging catches up with us all, even those who make us laugh. It’s still nice to see some comics I haven’t seen in more than a decade doing what they do best. I wouldn’t mind seeing them on a comedy nostalgia tour. Hey if New Wave bands can do it, why not stand-up comics?

Nostalgia aside, this feels a lot like it’s close to Monteith’s heart. The film doesn’t really focus on Patrick’s autism other than as an expense for Jake that he can’t afford, although the bond between Jake and his son is shown to be difficult but nonetheless strong. From my experience of families with autistic children, the relationship looks authentic and the movie gets points for that.

I liked the portrayal of the comedian’s life here; you watch them commiserating together, see the professional jealousies and regrets plainly and see them as people who have more of their career behind them than in front of them; Monteith as Jake puts it best when he says “I remember when too hip for the room wasn’t ironic” when describing his status among new hip comedians.

Monteith makes a compelling lead. He has a soft spot for family and friends but at times sacrifices either or both in pursuit of his dream of sitcom stardom. It isn’t always pretty and there are times when Jake is really not very likable, but at the end of the day he has a good heart that sometimes gets subverted by his baser instincts. Even when Jake isn’t likable, you still end up rooting for him and that’s crucial for a film like this to work.

I do have to say that there are times when the humor seems a little bit forced and some of the situations seem a little bit contrived. It feels like a few shortcuts were taken in the writing and it does detract a little bit from the genuineness you get from the rest of the film and does lower the rating of the film a little bit because it is somewhat noticeable; for example, the sequence in which a distraught Patrick runs away and is later found beaten up is unnecessary to the plot other than to artificially insert tension; the point that it seems to make – the urgency of getting Patrick enrolled in that socialization program – had already been made well enough.

Also the directors other than the opening sequence in which they employ handhelds to put yourself in Jake’s shoes tend to have fairly static camera placement. I actually find that somewhat refreshing, although most movie buffs I know are likely to be fussy about such things. Then again, this isn’t necessarily a movie for movie buffs per se.

The ending is a little bit predictable in that most experienced moviegoers will see it coming, but like the rest of the movie it packs a ton of heart. While this isn’t the most technically perfect movie you’ll see ever, this is a movie that clearly means a lot to the people in it and behind the cameras for it. Sometimes that’s enough for a movie to get by on, and in this case it’s very true. I actually think I enjoy the movie more now that I’ve had a chance to think about it than I did when I was first watching it and that is actually a pretty good feeling.

REASONS TO GO: Interesting look at the life of a comedian. Feels like a passion project. Monteith is an engaging lead.
REASONS TO STAY: Some of the plot points seem a little contrived. Ending is a little bit predictable. Staging may be too “old school” for hipper cinephiles.
FAMILY VALUES: A fair amount of foul language, some drug use and a brief scene of violence.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Monteith’s son Kyle and daughter Tierney cameo as passengers on the plane from Moline to Los Angeles.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, Vimeo
CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/11/15: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Funny People
FINAL RATING: 5.5/10
NEXT: Room

Top Five


Chris Rock, standin' around.

Chris Rock, standin’ around.

(2014) Dramedy (Paramount) Chris Rock, Rosario Dawson, Gabrielle Union, J.B. Smoove, Romany Malco, Hayley Marie Norman, Anders Holm, Cedric the Entertainer, Kevin Hart, Karlie Redd, Ben Vereen, Sherri Shepard, Annaleigh Ashford, Jay Pharaoh, Tracy Morgan, Hassan Johnson, Leslie Jones, Luis Guzman, Jerry Seinfeld, Adam Sandler, Whoopi Goldberg. Directed by Chris Rock

Fame is something we all kind of wish we had deep down. We want all the perks – admiration, adulation and wealth to name a few. The reality of fame though is far different than our perception of it, particularly among celebrities in the popular arts. The pressure to produce can be absolutely crushing and the availability of alcohol and drugs – and the encouragement to use them irresponsibly – also can add to a celebrity’s woes.

Andre Allen (Rock) is best-known as a stand-up comedian, considered by many to be one of the funniest men in America. His film career has spawned a lucrative franchise of a crime fighter in a bear suit. Now he’s trying to get up after hitting rock bottom after having gone through rehab and recovery. Sober a year and a half, he’s getting ready to marry Erica Long (Union), a reality TV star, on a Bravo reality series. His new movie, Uprizing about the Haitian slave rebellion is about to come out, and through it he hopes to reinvent himself as a serious Actor. Note the capital.

But the film is going to bomb. Everyone knows it except for Andre. His agent (Hart) has arranged for New York Times reporter Chelsea Brown (Dawson) to follow Andre around for a day, which he’s not very pleased about. The Times’ film critic has repeatedly excoriated his performances, comparing them to “crimes against humanity.” However he needs the publicity for the movie so he grudgingly goes along with it.

In the course of the night she will witness him reconnect with old friends and family, undergo interviews of often the most insensitive and inert kind, endure heartbreak and disappointment and come out on the other side – maybe with a clear understanding of who he is, maybe not.

I have always blown hot and cold when it comes to Chris Rock. His genius is plain to see but it hasn’t always been showcased properly in movies. His skills are in being Chris Rock, to present his views through his experiences and make them funny and relatable. He is not really a character actor; he never did the SNL thing of developing characters with their own distinct personalities. While that may limit one on the stand-up stage, it is excellent preparation for a motion picture career and has stood many alumni of the show well.

Rock stands out here. He is cocky and vulnerable, arrogant and humble, forceful and lost. I can’t think of many movie characters with as many contradictions as Andre Allen – and yes, having contradictions in a character is a good thing. We get to see facets of Rock that he usually doesn’t reveal. I don’t know that Rock is particularly looking to reinvent himself but he comes close here.

The support crew is pretty outstanding as well, a who’s who of modern American stand-up as well as some pretty fine actors in their own right. Dawson is one of those ladies who has a devastating smile, one that can melt solid steel and turn a glacier into a puddle in just about five seconds flat and yet it is rare that a director has really utilized it to good effect. Rock does and when he is the focus of that smile, every man in the audience feels it. This is one of her best roles ever.

Union has the thankless job of playing the fame-addicted reality TV star with a huge heaping helping of control freak factored in. She doesn’t have very many scenes with Rock (most of their interaction is over the phone) and the part isn’t terribly sympathetic but she still manages to make it real. Although we still don’t like her character.

Most of the cameos are just that but Last Comic Standing host J.B. Smoove gets himself a meaty part as Andre’s boyhood chum and bodyguard/chauffeur/right-hand man and runs with it. He reminds me a little bit of Arsenio Hall in Coming to America. In any case, the part works.

The movie itself is a bit of a mixed back. There were times I was drawn in and felt like a fly on the wall in someone’s life, which is when the movie works best. There were also some times when it felt like I was watching something staged, like the reality show within the movie. That’s when the movie works least.

This probably won’t be contending for my year-end top ten list but it should likely make the Honorable Mention. It’s pretty dang good but not great. There’s a lot here that works, like when Andre is visiting with folks from his past in the old New York neighborhood. When the movie is pouring it on about the movie star, then it felt a little bit forced. I would have liked to have seen more of the New York Chris Rock than the Hollywood Chris Rock. So, I suspect, would a lot of you.

REASONS TO GO: Has moments where it really fires on all cylinders. Rock is always a fascinating study.
REASONS TO STAY: Loses focus occasionally and overdoes it.
FAMILY VALUES: Nudity and strong sexual content, plenty of adult language, crude humor and some drug use.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Rock wrote the screenplay in his trailer while filming Grown-Ups 2 so at least something good came out of that movie.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 12/23/14: Rotten Tomatoes: 90% positive reviews. Metacritic: 81/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Stardust Memories
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT: The Holly and the Quill begins!

Local Legends


Say gang, let's put on a show!

Say gang, let’s put on a show!

(2013) Comedy (Motern Media) Matt Farley, Sharon Scalzo, Elizabeth M. Peterson, Tom Scalzo, Kevin McGee, Charles Roxburgh, Matt D., Millhouse G., Chris Peterson, Rachel Farley, Ryan Desmarais, Jon Cross, Jim Farley. Directed by Matt Farley

There are people who consume music and films, people like me. Someone else writes the songs, records the tracks, works the camera, constructs the script and does the acting. I just listen and/or watch. Other people aren’t content to do that; they need to create. However, their vision may not necessarily be grand – at least by certain standards. They don’t need stardom. They do what they do because they love doing it.

Local Legends takes a quasi-documentary approach. Shot in glorious black and white in and around Manchester, New Hampshire, local artist Matt Farley shows us more or less what his life is like. While a goodly amount is fictionalized there’s also a bit of truth going on here as well – it’s really up to you to determine which is which.

Matt is a stand-up comedian/musician/filmmaker/actor/songwriter/entertainment guru. He does all these things himself essentially without help or guidance from anyone, or at least not a lot. He works nights at a care facility for the elderly, mostly sleeping his way through work and only rousing himself to change the diapers when one of his charges has an accident.

During the day he writes and records songs, a lot of them – at  the time of filming he had over 13,000 songs on iTunes (that part is true) under various band names (go to the movie’s website and they’ll point you to a whole lot of them) which are mostly just Matt. Out of college he was in a group called Moes Haven which was a more or less serious band but Matt noticed that the only songs that were selling on iTunes were the novelty songs so after years of unjustified obscurity he and bandmate Tom Scalzo (who plays himself here) called it a day and moved on.

Matt and his friend Soup (Peterson) play one-on-one basketball during the day, each pretending they’re an NBA legend (such as Reggie Miller v. Bill Laimbeer – it gets confusing when they decide to pit Karl Malone against Moses Malone) but Matt generally hangs out most of the day recording songs. Some of them are fairly complex but some can be as simple as Matt repeating a person’s name over and over again against a catchy tune, or Matt waxing poetic on the joys of regular bowel movements. He has recorded more CDs than you can shake a stick at – not that there’s any good reason for you to shake anything in the general direction of a compact disc.

In order to get the word out about his music, he has to resort to creative means of marketing. From time to time, he’ll leave free discs in various places around Manchester. While doing this one afternoon he comes across his friend Millhouse G., a local promoter, putting up flyers for a Manchester comedy fest that he’s running and Millhouse invites Matt to take part, enthusiastic that he’s secured a 1,500 seat venue. Matt of course is all in.

Matt also meets Abby (Sharon Scalzo) after a comedy show. She invites him to her apartment with the lure of a complete Billy Joel collection. Matt, whose romantic cluelessness is part of his local legend, agrees but is disappointed to find out that her idea of a complete Billy Joel collection means that she has all of his Greatest Hits albums. Abby is clearly interested in Matt but is in a relationship with a guy named Norm (which is always a bad idea; guys named Norm are notoriously bad boyfriends) that is on again and off again by the hour. The good-natured Matt puts up with her particularly since she’s headed to Boston in a short time to attend art school – she wants to design costumes for display only. The thought of someone actually wearing them in a play or performance turns her stomach.

Abby’s constant attempts to spend time with Matt begin to irritate him but he doesn’t know how to get rid of her politely. Also the comedy show is beginning to get scaled down – it finally ends up being put on in Millhouse’s basement – well, to be more accurate, the basement of Millhouse’s parents. In the audience is Genevieve (Pearson) who also seems to be interested in Matt – but this time he’s actually interested in her.

This is what I call a “backyard movie” – one literally shot in the area around the filmmaker’s home and with a production budget approximately equivalent to a used car (a comparison that Matt uses during the film). Most of the actors are friends and family – during the comedy show scene in Millhouse’s basement, that’s Matt’s mom who comes downstairs in her bathrobe to get the laundry from the washing machine and Matt’s dad is in the audience. Surprisingly, the movie looks pretty good if you don’t mind fairly standard camera angles  – there isn’t anything fancy about the way Local Legends is shot but the movie nonetheless looks appealing. Manchester looks like a pretty cool place to live, although my wife and I once drove through New Hampshire and were advised throughout that there were moose crossings. We never saw one moose while we were there and concluded that moose are mythical creatures like unicorns and centaurs, which was proven  wrong when we ventured to Alaska. Screw you, New Hampshire!

Anyway, what I really like about the movie is that the more I watched the more it grew on me, like having a warm favorite blanket wrapped around you on a cold day. I got the sense that hanging out with Matt would be a good way to spend your time; he’s got a self-deprecating sense of humor and is unfailingly polite and good-natured. In fact, he informs you that the phone number he posts during the film is his actual phone number and if you give him a call, he’ll actually chat with you – and this is also true. He’ll even write a song about you if you ask him nicely (“I’m shameless,” he says disingenuously when asked about it). .

You’re unlikely to find this in a local theater and chances are it won’t ever play your local film festival either. However, you are in luck; you can see it for free on YouTube. If you’re interested, the link is right here. Just click on the word “here”  – not that one, the one that’s blue or possibly some other color and is in boldface. Otherwise click on the picture above and that will take you to the production company’s website where you’ll also find the link.

It took me about 15 minutes to really fall for this film but fall for it I did. While it has a Woody Allen-esque quality (without the neuroses) it also reminded me a little bit of Seinfeld in that the movie really isn’t about anything; it’s just a slice of this guy’s life. And let me tell you this, judging on what I see here, I really wouldn’t mind living it.

REASONS TO GO: Charming and grows on you the more you watch. Subtle and low-key.

REASONS TO STAY: Black and white isn’t everybody’s cup of tea. Those ADD sorts might start squirming after about 20 minutes.

FAMILY VALUES:  This is actually pretty family-friendly, although the humor is geared more towards adults rather than kids. However, no violence, no foul language and no sex.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The open-mic stand-up performance that opens the movie was filmed at the weekly Laugh Free or Die show in Manchester. So far as we know, nobody died.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 9/11/13: no scores on either Rotten Tomatoes or Metacritic.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Annie Hall

FINAL RATING: 6.5/10

NEXT: Last Night

Sleepwalk With Me


Sleepwalk With Me

Mike Birbiglia listens to Mitt Romney’s greatest speeches.

(2012) Dramedy (IFC) Mike Birbiglia, Lauren Ambrose, James Rebhorn, Carol Kane, Lucy DeVito, Philip Ettinger, Marc Maron, Emily Meade, Sondra James, Cristin Milioti, Amanda Perez, Amy Schumer, Ben Levin, Kristen Schaal, Loudon Wainwright III. Directed by Mike Birbiglia and Seth Barrish

 

Stand-up comedy is not a career for the faint of heart. It is also mighty rough on relationships. Aspiring comics spend long, lonely nights on the road and often utilize intimate details of their relationships as fodder for their acts.

Mike Birbiglia knows that better than most. His experiences as a struggling stand-up comic led him to write an Off-Broadway one man show, a regular gig on the NPR hit This American Life, a best-selling book and a comedy album, all of which this film is based on. In other words, on his own life.

Here he plays Matt Pandamiglia, the son of a driven, somewhat judgmental physician (Rebhorn) who praises his gay physician son (Levin) while constantly criticizing the son he views as a failure – unmarried, working in a bar, his career non-existent. He has a point.

But Matt isn’t entirely unsuccessful. He has a beautiful girlfriend named Abby (Ambrose) who puts up with his idiosyncrasies with the patience of a saint. They’ve been together eight years, pointed out in a somewhat snarky manner by Dear Old Dad when the comparison to Matt’s sister Janet (Milioti), who is wedding her beau after two years, is made.

Matt’s career as a stand-up comic is in neutral and quite frankly, with only eleven minutes of material – none of it any good – and the kind of delivery that would put a meth addict high as a kite instantly to sleep. Matt is also showing signs of sleepwalking, which concerns his father but also Abby as well, both of whom urge Matt to seek help.

Matt is a master avoider however, and pretends not to hear when un-pleasantries are brought up, or simply changes the subject. He is the very definition of passive-aggressive and isn’t always the sweet cuddly guy he seems to be.

However, when it comes to stand-up comedy, it’s often more who you know than how talented you are. He finds himself an agent (James) who gets him crap gigs in crap venues for crap wages. It keeps him on the road, which is just as well since it’s just as easy to bomb at home as it is to bomb somewhere else. However, as he starts working his frustrations with Abby, who wants to get married – and who in a moment of panic not wanting to lose her he has proposed to – into the act, his act begins to improve. The gigs begin to get better. The road trips begin to get longer. The relationship begins to crumble. And the sleepwalking gets worse.

Birbiglia asserts that all of this is true on several occasions and it has that ring of truth to it that comes from an autobiographical work. Birbiglia for the most part comes off as likable and charismatic, which bodes well for his future; however, he sometimes comes off as a real bastard which shows more bravery than his character Matt shows at any time here.

One of the nifty things about the film is that often it is difficult to tell if you are observing Matt’s life or one of his dreams until things start to get weird. It keeps the audience just off-balance enough to keep us honest. The stand-up comedy, particularly in the later sequences when Matt gets good at it, are pretty damn funny.

This is really all about Birbiglia. The other characters in the movie, even Abby who shares the most screen time with him, really don’t get a ton of development. Even the delightful Carol Kane, as Matt’s mom, is given little to do than to act batty and protective. Matt’s passiveness is often frustrating but this is definitely worth hanging in there with. When Birbiglia focuses on his relationships, the movie seems more energized. When focusing on Birbiglia alone, it loses focus a little bit. It’s not a perfect movie (few movies are) but it is certainly worthwhile enough to make an effort to seek out if you can.

REASONS TO GO: Birbiglia is engaging most of the time. Weaves dream sequences in skillfully.

REASONS TO STAY: Could have used more character development of the characters not named Matt.

FAMILY VALUES:  A bit of sexuality and a bit of bad language.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: In order to play himself, Birbiglia lost more than 20 pounds.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/7/12: Rotten Tomatoes: 86% positive reviews. Metacritic: 71/100. The reviews are definitely positive.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Punchline

STAND-UP COMEDY LOVERS: There are several sequences of stand-up comics, particularly Birbiglia, practicing their craft.

FINAL RATING: 7.5/10

NEXT: Waltz With Bashir