Tuesday 24 November 2020

The Comeback Trail (2020) - Movie Review

How’s this for justifying a remake: It’s impossible to get a copy of the original.

Okay, not impossible, but in attempting to do background work for this new feature, I failed to find a way to watch the 1982 Harry Hurwitz original, legally or otherwise. And judging by the numbers onLetterboxd, I’m not the onlyone having trouble getting this thing. I’d make a joke about this being a literal ‘it’s better than nothing’ situation… but honestly, I’m a bit torn on that notion.

A film about filmmaking that’s equal parts The Producers and Death To Smoochy, it’s the story of schlock producer Max Barber (Robert De Niro) who, as an attempt to pay off his debts to mobster Reggie Fontaine (Morgan Freeman), tries to kill off aged Western star Duke Montana (Tommy Lee Jones) on set for a faux-movie to collect on his insurance. It’s gallows humour, anchored mainly by the notion of how difficult it is to purposely kill a suicidal old man, and while that definitely registers on a certain Delicatessen level, it frequently bumps against the chipper tone of the film at large.

It doesn’t help that writer/director George Gallo’s approach to tributing Old Hollywood is all text, not style, and incredibly on-the-nose text at that. Seeing Freeman and De Niro go back and forth about how many different movie deaths Fontaine can threaten to put Barber through can get pretty tedious (it’s like the Boomer answer to Ready Player One, through the perspective of what Boomers think RPO is), and it comes across more like lip service than actual tribute for the past.

To say nothing of the production values, where a gag about a pretentious French director’s idea for shooting the film-within-a-film (shot with handheld camerawork to emulate Parkinson’s, and intentionally out-of-focus) turns sour once it sets in just how much shaky-cam is in this thing. For a film all about making a classic Western, it sure looks like something Paul Greengrass would have Matt Damon running his way through.

The film shooting itself in the foot is a recurring feeling with the story proper, as funny as seeing De Niro and greasy-porn-stache-sporting Zach Braff bickering with each other is. The main vibe of the film, revolving around a running joke about how merciless Hollywood producers are, is that no matter how cynical their intent is, no matter how much they endanger their cast and crew, it’ll all magically work out because of the art behind it. It’s pretty damn tone-deaf, partly because of how much the audience’s faith in filmmaker was shaken over the 2010s, and partly because the industry itself is going through some rough times that… well, quite frankly, might be a positive side effect of COVID: The industry has to change.

And yet, within that very framework, there’s also something rather poignant about the reality of filmmaking. I may object to the idea of how hollow the mainstream industry is, but only as something to be celebrated in this fashion; business is as business does, after all. However, the way the characters keep talking about happenstance and the will of God and just how difficult it is to get a film finished… yeah, all of that is true as well. Something I feel bad for not highlighting more often in these reviews is that, no matter how bad the final product of a given production turns out, at least it actually got finished. Not every production is so lucky, and the amount of work and willpower required to make the subjects of even my most aggressive reviews deserves credit all the same.

It’s weighing up those two sides (the cold commercial and the warm idealist sides of show business) that not only forms the core of the dynamic between Barber and Braff’s Walter Creason, but also the prevailing attitude of the narrative around them. And on the strength of the acting, the admittedly consistent hit-to-miss ratio with the jokes, and my weakness for yarns about cinema as an artistic force that can move the hearts of men, it just manages to work out. I can’t say that I’m entirely on board with the perspective it gives of the industry, but I can’t say I’m immune to the sentiment either.

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