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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NIghtingale (HBO)


Happy wife, happy life.

Happy wife, happy life.

(2015) Drama (HBO) David Oyelowo, Barlow Jacobs, Heather Storm. Directed by Elliott Lester

It isn’t often that we here at Cinema365 review movies made for television, even for HBO, perhaps the most prestigious maker of television movies. While ’tis true that Nightingale got a limited and minuscule theatrical release both here and abroad, this movie, which continues to play on the cable giant and is also available on such streaming/downloading services like Amazon Prime, iTunes and Vudu, demands attention.

Peter Snowden (Oyelowo) has just done a very bad thing. He has brutally murdered his mother. She is a Bible-thumping, domineering woman who constantly treats her son, who served in the Army in the Middle East, as a child, refusing to allow him to invite an army buddy, Edward, over for dinner. That appears to be the last straw.

Except that Peter isn’t what you’d call the most reliable witness. He has anger issues, is a pathological liar and clearly delusional. He is falling apart and his matricidal actions have sent him spinning further out of control down the darkest path a man can take.

This is a one-man show, depicting Peter within the confines of his home. He records video blog segments, speaks to his sister on his cellphone and at times attempts to wheedle Edward into coming over, generally speaking to Edward’s wife Gloria who doesn’t want Peter within a hundred miles of her husband (and for good reason).

To Peter, Edward is more than a friend – “I would do anything for that man,” he declares and judging by his level of obsession towards him we can believe it. As the movie progresses we discover that Peter’s fondness for Edward may go beyond Army buddies; there is certainly some romantic and even sexual overtones that are never overtly stated, but are clearly there.

What makes this film work is Oyelowo’s brilliant performance. Snubbed by Oscar for his work in Selma which by all rights he should have gotten at least a nomination for, he has been at last embraced by Emmy for which he has justifiably received a nomination. We are put in a fairly confined space with Oyelowo and he has to hold our interest for 90 minutes essentially all by himself, and he does so superbly. There is a great deal of nuance, from the fits of rage, the moments of sadness and loneliness, and the calm near the end when events are spiraling towards their inevitable conclusion.

Of course, it’s not just a crazy war veteran talking to himself, although there are moments of that. We hear him trying to deflect concern of his sister and his mother’s friends from church who all want to know where she is; their increasing suspicions drive Peter further around the bend. Besides the phone conversations, he talks to a folding mirror in which his reflection is refracted into three separate images, an overt symbol of his splintering mind, and often he addresses his dead mother as if she is still with him. At other times he feels crushing guilt for what he has done.

This is an emotional roller coaster ride, the intensity of which might catch some by surprise and others may be too much to handle. The filmmakers pull no punches; they make no judgment on Peter (and in fact at times we feel sympathy for him) but only present his deeds and his words for review. Certainly we recoil in horror at what he does to his own mother (thankfully, all off-screen) and at his attitudes towards those who would keep him away from Edward who more and more seems to resemble some sort of life preserver to his psyche which is clearly going under.

This is very much like watching a car accident; you’re horrified but you can’t look away. If I have a quibble with the movie, it is that at times it is more acting exercise than film, but the acting is so extraordinary that you can forgive the movie its flaws.

We have reviewed documentaries that HBO has created, and this and other films have shown an increasing willingness from HBO to exhibit their films in theaters, which of course is an entirely different experience than seeing their films at home. This is a movie that works perfectly well on the home screen and in fact, that may be a better medium for a film like this. Regardless, Oyelowo’s performance is worth viewing all by itself; it is one of the finest you will see in a theater or at home this year.

REASONS TO GO: An exceptional, Emmy-nominated performance by Oyelowo. Realistic and intense.
REASONS TO STAY: More acting exercise than movie.
FAMILY VALUES: Adult themes. Some foul language.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Very loosely based on a case that occurred in Illinois.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/9/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 81% positive reviews. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: ‘night, Mother
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT: Trainwreck