The Comeback Trail reteams Robert De Niro with Midnight Run writer George Gallo for a showbiz comedy that should really be better.
It’s the 1970s, the height of the new era of Hollywood. The studio system has given way to a new breed of bright young filmmakers and hotshot producers. Max Barber (Robert De Niro) is hardly Robert Evans. Following his latest flop, a nunsploitation film that inspired furious protests but no ticket purchases, he finds himself in a tough spot. His primary funder, a movie buff gangster named Reggie Fontaine (Morgan Freeman), wants his money back. What’s a producer to do but concoct a money-making scheme involving a new movie, an ageing former cowboy star, and an insurance policy that will save Max’s skin should his leading man suddenly die on-set?
In 1988, Robert De Niro famously joined forces up with writer/producer George Gallo for the action-comedy Midnight Run, a classic odd-couple tale that Alan Sepinwall of Rolling Stone described as ‘the Casablanca of buddy comedies.’ In the interim decades since Midnight Run and leading to up The Comeback Trail, we’ve had a solid series of films that tackle the Hollywood mystique, blending the movie industry with the wheelings and dealings of the crime underworld, like Get Shorty. We’re also not short on movies about the magic of Los Angeles’s film industry, whether it’s the melancholy dissection of ’60s studio-era masculinity in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood or the musical romance of La La Land. All of this is to say that it’s no surprise that The Comeback Trail feels so dang dated. Still, it’s surprising just how tedious it can be.
Midnight Run worked because its leading men, De Niro and the late great Charles Grodin, had chemistry you would kill for. The jokes flew thick and fast, and director Martin Brest knew his way around an action-comedy thanks to his work on Beverly Hills Cop. As a director, Gallo has no sense of pacing or blocking. It takes far too long to get to the central set-up of the story, with the film instead more interested in being sad over the prospect of Max having to give up his dream script to a sleazy frenemy played by Emile Hirsch. The jokes feel labored with the actors either phoning it in or hamming it up. There are moments when you can practically see the glimmer of Morgan Freeman’s eye, where he’s loudly thinking to himself, ‘when does the check clear?’ His character primarily speaks in movie references, which is nowhere near as witty as the film thinks it is. Zach Braff wanders around looking kind of lost, as if J.D. from Scrubs had a new internship. At least Robert De Niro is trying. Somewhat.
We could be here all day discussing the highs and lows of the work of His Generation’s Greatest Actor. We know that De Niro does a lot of bad movies. Most of this century of his career has been defined less by The Irishman and Meet the Parents and more by titles like The Adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle and Dirty Grandpa. None of these turkeys dampen his immense legacy. He’s a 70-something jobbing actor. We respect it. Still, we know how good De Niro is at comedy, and how sharply he can utilize his gruff persona to elicit the most laughs. It’s partly why he’s so funny in stuff like Midnight Run and Analyze This. As Max Barber, complete with thick ’70s-style glasses and a lush porn-stache, he mostly gurns and guffaws. But at least it’s something. There are moments of glee where you see what makes De Niro so magnetic. One scene involving Max celebrating a cocky leading man’s grizzly end, which inspires his scheme, is bleak but nervy enough to give De Niro something to do. Would that the entire movie had such gumption.
The stand-out of this dog and pony show is Tommy Lee Jones as Duke Montana, a former Western icon reduced to doing commercials for used car lots and languishing in a nursing home for retired actors. Max hires him for a new movie, The Oldest Gun in the West, then takes out a massive insurance policy in his name with a plan to facilitate his tragic passing during the shoot. Jones has one of the best faces in the business, the perfect canvas for decades of nostalgia and sorrow. Montana’s best days are behind him, and he’s mostly concerned with ending his life, which of course makes him ideal for Max’s scheming. Jones’s performance is the closest the film gets to real pathos (although the stock score really does try to pull at your nose hairs and induce some sort of teary reaction.)
For a film so ingrained within the movie business, The Comeback Trail isn’t an especially interesting take. It doesn’t feel like Gallo has much to say about his own industry. De Niro gives a few monologues about the magic of film and holding onto your dreams in a tough field, but it’s all rather perfunctory. You could mine such gold from this concept. Think about how darkly hilarious this movie would be in the hands of the Coen brothers (hello, Hail, Caesar!). Instead, we get a lot of slapstick and some unearned morals about believing in the magic of the movies. It’s curious to see Gallo romanticize this era with seemingly no real interest in its machinations or why it was so important to the history of the medium. It’s not enough to namedrop a bunch of classic movies. Really, you could have moved the setting to any year from the past three decades or so and I’m not sure much would have changed.
By the time we get to the third act, The Comeback Trail has thoroughly run out of steam and become utterly defanged. This is a script that either needed some serious rewrites or a total overhaul, preferably by someone with a sharper eye for the industry it’s supposed to be depicting and/or satirizing. Seriously, it never really makes up its mind if it wants to be a satire or not, which is never a good sign for the viewer.
Just wait for Killers of the Flower Moon for your next De Niro fix.
The Comeback Trail is set to be released in theaters on July 23. In the UK, you can watch it on Sky Cinema.
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