By David Elliott
Flix Nosh is a personal movie menu, served fresh each Friday.
APPETIZER: Review of The ComedianPraising Mickey Rooney’s performance as Dick Van Dyke’s partner, in Carl Reiner’s The Comic (1969), Pauline Kael wrote that he “creates a character out of almost nothing, and lives it on the screen so convincingly that you fully expect to see him again after the movie is over.” The same could be said of Robert De Niro as the aging but not whipped comedian Jackie Burke, in The Comedian. You can bet funny money that Kael, the great critic who died in 2001, would have relished this crass, canny picture, and especially De Niro. Now 73, the actor has since 50 often seemed to be punching a time clock, but Jackie joins his best work.
Ronnie Raunchy would be a valid club name for Jackie (how many recall pro golfer “Jackie” Burke? Well, Jack Burke Jr., is still alive at 94). De Niro’s Jackie B often “works blue” and is happy to go purple. His crude, caustic wit is hardly Kind Hearts and Coronets, but only the Amish or squeamish need be scared away. Burke is not one of those antique Catskills dearies beloved by Woody Allen. His rude humor is in the kill-or-die line of Sid Caesar, Jackie Gleason, Zero Mostel, Jack E. Leonard, Don Rickles and Gilbert Gottfried (who has a smiling cameo).
Jackie is haunted by his past big hit, the TV sitcom Eddie’s Home, a safe harness he came to hate. When old fans demand Eddie’s shtick, Jackie squirms, tries to beg off, then savages them. De Niro nails the aggression of comical dinosaurs, the embittered champs who seem equally rancid about success and failure. We can see mental notes coming to life from his testing time with Jerry Lewis in The King of Comedy. Although less royal than late-prime Lewis, he is funnier. The predatory integrity of Jackie Burke is that he refuses to soften with age, to become a beloved entertainer. The film is less a story than a portrait, richly ambivalent about its “hero.”
When a heckler turns nasty, Jackie decks him (this violates one of his rules: “I don’t do physical comedy”). What saves Jackie from crushing the movie with his vulgarity are his smartly timed, watchful nuances, the sense of a pro at work, scanning life for its performance ops and covering his insides.. A great enabler is Leslie Mann as Harmony, the wised-up beauty who is no pushover. A very womanly “straight man,” Harmony can toss Jackie off his stride. The Comedian has a bunch of vividly fine performances: Edie Falco as Jackie’s dogged, weary manager, Danny DeVito as his long-suffering brother, Patti LuPone as De Vito’s wife who despises Jackie (she looks like a pit-bull Ayn Rand). Harvey Keitel, De Niro’s old Scorsese buddy, oozes smarmy machismo as Mann’s father.
When Jackie sprays zingers at his gay niece’s wedding, PC values die like flies. The movie’s posse of writers and director Taylor Hackford savor what is cheesy and old-time about Jackie, but also enjoy his complex ego, even when he is reduced to poop gags at a Florida rest home. Hackford has done crafty work – not only his big hit An Officer and a Gentleman but Ray, Love Ranch, Dolores Claiborne and a rich Chuck Berry film – but never anything quite this keenly focused yet free-spirited. He loves New York, uses jazz as propulsive links, is hip to junk TV and the insane Internet, and celebrates his troupers (Charles Grodin, Freddie Roman, Jimmie Walker and, at 90, a game Cloris Leachman).
In one stretch, Hackford and De Niro score a trifecta: Jackie inflicts a chow mein joke on a savvy Chinese waiter (Lyman Chen), then encounters wry Billy Crystal in an elevator, and then squelches Grodin’s bossy pomposity at the Friar’s Club. Jackie shows up for his niece’s lesbian wedding wearing a tie imprinted with cocktail glasses, then blitzes the stunned crowd. He rules this hip, corrosive movie. I have a fantasy that past zing kings – brainy wizards like Lenny Bruce, Jonathan Winters, Sam Kinison, George Carlin – might return to laugh us out of the Trump dump. No chance of that, but Jackie Burke is a guy for the ramparts.
SALAD (A List)Here are Ace Comical Performances by Dramatic Actors, in order of their arrival: John Barrymore in Twentieth Century (1934), Clark Gable in It Happened One Night (1934), Charles Laughton in Ruggles of Red Gap (1935), Lew Ayres in Holiday (1938), Alec Guinness in The Ladykillers (1955), Orson Welles in The Long Hot Summer (1958), Vittorio Gassman in Il Sorpasso (1962), James Mason in Lolita (1962), Marcello Mastroianni in Divorce, Italian Style (1962), Albert Finney in Tom Jones (1963), Sterling Hayden in Dr. Strangelove (1964), Dustin Hoffman in Tootsie (1982), Peter O’Toole in My Favorite Year (1982) and Warren Beatty in Rules Don’t Apply (2016).
WINE (Vin Orsonaire de Chateau Welles)It is widely agreed that the second genius on Citizen Kane, after Orson Welles, was cinematographer Gregg Toland, who came to Welles voluntarily and “said that he felt miserable after working on many run-of-the-mill assignments and that he wanted to collaborate with Welles because of the young director’s experience: ‘I want to work with someone who’s never made a movie. That’s the only way to learn anything.” It should be noted that Welles had overwhelmed both Broadway and radio in his early 20s, and that Toland’s prior assignments included his stunning imagery for The Grapes of Wrath, Wuthering Heights and The Long Voyage Home. (Quote from Frank Brady’s Citizen Welles.)
ENTRÉE (Starlight Rising)A torture sequence in Kafka’s The Trial got a whole new shock of sick life in Welles’s 1962 film, where in a storage room “under a lashing belt the men writhe … a naked light bulb invokes Picasso’s Guernica, and the hand-held camera is like a mad bat from Goya’ black paintings. Joseph K shrinks back into the door, stutters a bribe (refused) and then oozes away. Welles extends an amazing shot of his body extruding through the door crack.” (From the Anthony Perkins/ The Trial chapter of my book Starlight Rising: Acting Up in Movies, available from Amazon, Nook and Kindle.)
DESSERT (An Image)A great movie image is more than a still, it’s a distillation.
Liza Minnelli, Robert De Niro and Jerry Lewis, show-bizzy in The King of Comedy (20th Century Fox, 1983; director Martin Scorsese, cinematographer Fred Schuler).
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