Insomnia File #33: The Comedian (dir by Taylor Hackford)


What’s an Insomnia File? You know how some times you just can’t get any sleep and, at about three in the morning, you’ll find yourself watching whatever you can find on cable? This feature is all about those insomnia-inspired discoveries!

If you were having trouble getting to sleep around two in the morning last night, you could have turned over to Starz and watched the 2016 film, The Comedian.

It probably wouldn’t have helped.  It’s not that The Comedian is a particularly interesting movie or anything like that.  Abysmally paced and full of dull dialogue, The Comedian would be the perfect cure for insomnia if it just wasn’t so damn loud.  Robert De Niro plays an aging comedian named Jackie Burke and, in this movie, being an aging comedian means that you shout out your punch lines with such force that you almost seem to be threatening anyone who doesn’t laugh.  However, the threats aren’t necessary because everyone laughs at everything Jackie says.

Actually, it’s a bit of an understatement to say that everyone laughs.  In The Comedian, Jackie is such a force of pure, unstoppable hilarity that all he has to do is tell someone that they’re fat and literally the entire world will shriek with unbridled joy.  The thing with laughter is that, in the real world, everyone laughs in a different way.  Not everyone reacts to a funny joke with an explosive guffaw.  Some people chuckle.  Some people merely smile.  But, in the world of The Comedian, everyone not only laughs the same way but they also all laugh at the same time.  There’s never anyone who doesn’t immediately get the joke and, by that same token, there’s never anyone who can’t stop laughing once everyone else has fallen silent.  The Comedian takes individuality out of laughter, which is a shame because the ability to laugh is one of the unique things that makes us human.

Anyway, The Comedian is about a formerly famous comedian who is now obscure.  He used to have a hit TV show but now he’s nearly forgotten.  Why he’s forgotten is never made clear because nearly everyone in the movie still seems to think that he’s the funniest guy in the world.  Jackie’s an insult comic and people love it when he tells them that they’re overweight or when he makes fun of their sexual preferences.  This would probably be more believable if Jackie was played by an actor who was a bit less intense than Robert De Niro.  When De Niro starts to make aggressive jokes, you’re natural instinct is not so much to laugh as it is to run before he starts bashing in someone’s head with a lead pipe.

Anyway, the plot of the film is that Jackie gets into a fight with a heckler.  The video of the fight is uploaded to YouTube, which leads to a scene where his manager (Edie Falco) stares at her laptop and announces, “It’s going viral!”  Later on, in the movie, Jackie forces a bunch of old people to sing an obnoxious song with him and he goes viral a second time.  I kept waiting for a shot of a computer screen with “VIRAL” blinking on-and-off but sadly, the movie never provided this much-needed insert.

In between beating up the heckler, ruining his niece’s wedding, and hijacking a retirement home, Jackie finds the time to fall in love with Harmony Schlitz (Leslie Mann), a character whose name alone is enough to The Comedian one of the most annoying films of all time.  Harmony’s father is a retired gangster (Harvey Keitel) and you can’t help but wish that Keitel and De Niro could have switched roles.  It wouldn’t have made the movie any better but at least there would have been a chance of Keitel going batshit insane whenever he took the stage to deliver jokes.

I’m not sure why anyone thought it would be a good idea to cast an actor like Robert De Niro as a successful comedian.  It’s true that De Niro was brilliant playing a comedian in The King of Comedy but Rupert Pupkin was supposed to be awkward, off-putting, and not very funny.  I’m not an expert on insult comics but, from what I’ve seen, it appears that the successful ones largely succeed by suggesting that they’re just having fun with the insults, that no one should take it personally, and that they appreciate any member of the audience who is willing to be a good sport.  Jackie just comes across like a cranky old misogynist.  Watching Jackie is like listening to your bitter uncle play Vegas.  I guess it would help if Jackie actually said something funny every once in a while.  A typical Jackie joke is to refer to his lesbian niece as being a “prince.”  Speaking for myself, when it comes to Robert De Niro being funny, I continue to prefer the scene in Casino where he hosts the Ace Rothstein Show.

Perhaps the funniest thing about The Comedian is that, when it originally released into theaters, it was advertised as being “The Comedian, a Taylor Hackford film,” as if Taylor Hackford is some type of Scorsese-style auteur.  Taylor Hackford has been making films for longer than I’ve been alive and he has yet to actually come up with any sort of signature style beyond point and shoot.  The second funniest thing is that The Comedian was billed as a potential Oscar contender, up until people actually saw the damn thing.

Though it may have failed at the box office, The Comedian seems to show up on Starz quite frequently.  They always seem to air it very late at night, as if they’re hoping people won’t notice.  

Previous Insomnia Files:

  1. Story of Mankind
  2. Stag
  3. Love Is A Gun
  4. Nina Takes A Lover
  5. Black Ice
  6. Frogs For Snakes
  7. Fair Game
  8. From The Hip
  9. Born Killers
  10. Eye For An Eye
  11. Summer Catch
  12. Beyond the Law
  13. Spring Broke
  14. Promise
  15. George Wallace
  16. Kill The Messenger
  17. The Suburbans
  18. Only The Strong
  19. Great Expectations
  20. Casual Sex?
  21. Truth
  22. Insomina
  23. Death Do Us Part
  24. A Star is Born
  25. The Winning Season
  26. Rabbit Run
  27. Remember My Name
  28. The Arrangement
  29. Day of the Animals
  30. Still of The Night
  31. Arsenal
  32. Smooth Talk

A Movie A Day #38: Fighting Back (1982, directed by Lewis Teague)


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The time is 1982.  The place is Hell on Earth, also known as Philadelphia.  Crime is out of control and the police are powerless to stop it.  When deli owner John D’Angelo (Tom Skerritt) and his wife, Lisa (Patti LuPone), confront a pimp named Eldorado (Pete Richardson), he rams his car into the back of their car, causing the pregnant Lisa to lose her unborn child.  At almost the exact same time, John’s mother (Gina DeAngles) is mugged by two thugs who chop off her ring finger.

In the grand tradition of Charles Bronson, John decides to fight back.  But he doesn’t go it alone.  With his best friend, a police officer named Vince (Michael Sarrazin), John starts the People’s Neighborhood Patrol.  The PNP is going to clean up Philadelphia, one street at a time.  The media (represented by David Rasche) make John into a celebrity.  The black community (represented by Yaphet Kotto) suspect that John and the PNP are guilty of racial discrimination.  The Mafia wants to bring John over to their side.  John runs for city council but he still has time to drop a grenade in a pimp’s car.

Fighting Back was one of the many urban vigiliante films to come out after the success of Death Wish.  Fighting Back‘s producer, Dino De Laurentiis, also produced Death Wish but made the mistake of later selling the rights to Cannon.  Fighting Back was not the box office success that either Death Wish or its sequels were, even though Fighting Back is actually the better movie.  That’s because Fighting Back was directed by the underrated Lewis Teague.  Teague does a good job of making Philadelphia look like a war zone and the scenes of vigilante justice are enjoyable but, overall, Teague takes a far more ambiguous approach to vigilantism than Michael Winner did when he directed Death Wish.  As vile as Philadelphia criminals may be, John D’Angelo isn’t always that likable himself.  When Kotto accuses John and the all-white PNP of being racially prejudiced, Teague suggests that he has a point.  Tom Skerritt gives a good performance, playing John as a proud, blue collar guy who wants to do the right thing but gets seduced by his newfound celebrity.

Better acted than Death Wish and smarter than The Exterminator, Fighting Back is an underrated vigilante gem.

Fighting Back is also known as Philadelphia Security and Death Vengeance.

Fighting Back is also known as Philadelphia Security and Death Vengeance.

Embracing the Melodrama Part II #75: Witness (dir by Peter Weir)


Witness_movieLast night, I was lucky enough to watch Witness, a best picture nominee from 1985.

Taking place in Pennsylvania, Witness tells the story of what happens when an Amish widow named Rachel (Kelly McGillis) and her 8 year-old son Samuel (Lukas Haas) decide to take a trip to visit Rachel’s sister.  Traveling on an Amtrak train, Samuel is amazed by his first view of the world outside of the close-knit and insular Amish society.  However, Samuel’s excitement soon turns to horror when they arrive in Philadelphia and he witnesses a man being brutally murdered.

Detective John Book (Harrison Ford, who received his first and, to date, only Oscar nomination for this film) is assigned to the case and arranges for Rachel and Samuel to stay with his sister.  John soon discovers that the murder was committed by two crooked cops, McFee (Danny Glover, who is pure evil in this film) and Ferguson (Angus MacInnes).  John goes to his superior officer, Chief Schaefer (Josef Sommer) with his evidence.  Soon after, McFee attempts to kill and seriously wounds John.  John realizes that Schaefer must be corrupt as well.

Book manages to drive Rachel and Samuel back to their farm in Lancaster County but, after dropping them off, he passes out from blood loss.  Knowing that sending John to the hospital would reveal Rachel and Samuel’s location to Schaefer, Rachel’s father (Jan Rubes) reluctantly allows John to stay at the farm.

And so, while McFee, Ferguson, and Schaefer search for him, John temporarily pretends to be Amish.  He works in the fields.  He helps to build a barn.  He becomes something of a surrogate father to Samuel and he begins a forbidden flirtation with Rachel.

He also goes to town, where he watches as an idiotic local bullies the Amish, knowing that their religion forbids them from fighting back.  John responds by punching a bully, upsetting both the Amish and the a local store owner who yells that this will be terrible for the tourism.  In many ways, the scene is played for laughs and applause but there’s a very serious subtext here, as it would appear that the area’s main appeal to tourists is that you can humiliate the Amish without having to worry about any sort of retaliation.

While we, as viewers, definitely get some satisfaction from seeing John punch that jackass, it also allows Schaefer to discover where he and Rachel are hiding.  One morning, McFee, Ferguson, and Schaefer pull up outside the farm.  They get out of their car and, as the sun rises and with beautiful green fields on either side of them, the three men hold up their shotguns and start to walk down the road….

Witness may technically be a cop film but it’s actually so much more.  It’s a character study of a deeply cynical man who finds himself changed by simple and innocent surroundings.  It’s a love story, with Ford and McGillis illuminating the screen with their chemistry.  It’s a celebration of community, with the harshness of Philadelphia being contrasted with life among the Amish.  It’s a film full of beautiful images and it also features an excellent performance from Harrison Ford.

It’s a good film.  I’m glad that I witnessed Witness.