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Wednesday, February 01, 2017

Granger at the Movies: ‘The Comedian,’ ‘20th Century Women’

By Susan Granger

Special to WestportNow

Back in 1983, Robert De Niro played a sociopathic wannabe celebrity in Martin Scorsese’s “The King of Comedy,” starring Jerry Lewis.  Obviously, the delusional character intrigued De Niro because in “The Comedian,” he’s a former TV sit-com star, Jackie Burke.

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Aging Burke has hit hard times, unable to move beyond nostalgic references to “Eddie’s Home.” One night when an obnoxious heckler with a web-cam taunts him at a comedy club in Hicksville, Long Island, he clobbers the guy in a scuffle that winds up on YouTube.

After spending 30 days in the slammer, Jackie reports for community service at a homeless shelter, where he meets Harmony (Leslie Mann), who is also atoning for an angry outburst.

Despite their obvious age difference, they connect. He takes her to the Comedy Cellar and his lesbian niece’s wedding; she takes him to a birthday dinner for her domineering father (Harvey Keitel).

Cobbled together by a disparate quartet of screenwriters (Art Linson, Jeff Ross, Richard LaGravenese, Lewis Friedman) and superficially directed by Taylor Hackford, it’s filled with strained insult comedy, a Friars Club Roast of a legendary comedienne (Cloris Leachman) and a sleazy game show, reminiscent of “Fear Factor.”

FYI: Comedian Harry Einstein, father of actor Albert Brooks, really died on the Friars Club dais in 1958. “That excited me,” recalls De Niro. “One scene - and you want to do the whole movie.”

De Niro captures Jackie’s bitter, simmering resentment, while Leslie Mann wrestles with Harmony’s demons. Edie Falco is Jackie’s frustrated manager, while Danny De Vito and Patti LuPone play his long-suffering brother and resentful sister-in-law.

After doing “Mean Streets” and “Taxi Driver” together, De Niro and Harvey Keitel click, along with cameos by Charles Grodin, Billy Crystal, Brett Butler, Richard Belzer, Gilbert Gottfried, Jim Norton, Jessica Kirson and Hannibal Buress.

But the brash script turns sour when there’s an unexpected twist and Jackie forces residents in a Florida retirement home to sing along as he changes “Makin’ Whoopee” into the scatological “Makin’ Poopy.” Shades of De Niro’s “Dirty Grandpa” debacle.

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “The Comedian” is a flimsy, faltering 5 - and definitely not funny.

In “20th Century Women,” writer/director Mike Mills weaves an intriguing tale about Dorothea Fields (Annette Bening), a chain-smoking, single mom who enlists the help of family and friends in nurturing her rebellious 15 year-old son, Jamie (Lucas Jade Zumann), as he struggles to find his identity while growing into manhood.

It’s 1979 and they live in a large, old house in Santa Barbara, California, with a couple of boarders: punk photographer Abby (Greta Gerwig), a free-spirited feminist recovering from cervical cancer, and William (Billy Crudup), an earthy carpenter/handyman who’s helping Dorothea renovate the ramshackle Victorian place.

Skateboarding Jamie is also influenced by his sexually promiscuous best friend, 17 year-old Julie (Elle Fanning), who insists on maintaining a platonic relationship, despite her disconcerting habit of sneaking in his window and climbing into his bed at night.

Best remembered for telling his 75 year-old dad’s story in “Beginners” (2010), starring Christopher Plummer, Mike Mills once again draws on semi-autobiographical material to paint a compelling cinematic portrait of a devoted mother who is, admittedly, floundering during a period of social and cultural upheaval.

Mills indulges in plenty of long pauses, making for a rather slow pace, yet casting Annette Bening was a brilliant choice, because she embodies unconventional, middle-aged, lonely Dorothea, coalescing this multi-generational comedic drama.

A pivotal moment occurs when everyone gathers around the TV to watch then-President Jimmy Carter deliver his ‘Crisis of Confidence’ speech, using the energy crisis to allude to the vulnerability of the American soul, a prescient prelude to the upcoming Reagan era.

To underscore its period authenticity, Mills borrows from Godfrey Reggio’s cinematic essay “Koyaanisquatsi” and has Dorothea reading “Watership Down” and “Future Shock.”

Music plays a major part of the meandering moviemaking tapestry. While Dorothea prefers standards like “As Time Goes By,” she’s willing to experiment with the Talking Heads vs. Black Flag.

On the Granger Gauge, “20th Century Women” is a sensitive yet snarky 7, observing, “Wondering if you’re happy is just a shortcut to being depressed.”


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( Editor’s Note: Westport resident Susan Granger grew up in Hollywood, studied journalism with Pierre Salinger at Mills College, and graduated from the University of Pennsylvania with highest honors in journalism. In addition to writing for newspapers and magazines, she has been on radio/television as an anchorwoman and movie/drama critic for many years. See her reviews at www.susangranger.com.)

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Posted 02/01/17 at 10:10 AM  Permalink



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