Sony // 1969 // 96 Minutes // Rated PG
Reviewed by Appellate Judge Tom Becker (Retired) // November 14th, 2013
A funny new motion picture that tells Hollywood like it really was.
Watching actors try to transition from hit comedy series to film stardom isn't always pleasant -- just ask Shelley Long, Barbara Feldon, Henry Winkler, or anyone from Friends who isn't Jennifer Aniston. Sometimes, TV actors are so eager to make it as movie stars that they don't take time to consider the material they're being offered; sometimes, they public just isn't ready to welcome them outside of their characters and shows.
Dick Van Dyke and Mary Tyler Moore might be considered pioneers in this respect. The stars of The Dick Van Dyke Show racked up awards and recognition for their turns in what is considered one of the finest sitcoms of all time. When it came time to take their talents to the big screen, however, they faltered, and both ended up returning to television -- Moore to another highly acclaimed sitcom, The Mary Tyler Moore Show, and Van Dyke to Diagnosis Murder.
While Van Dyke starred in a couple of high-profile family films -- the classic Mary Poppins and the less-than-warmly received Chitty Chitty Bang Bang -- most of his post-sitcom appearances were in forgettable, and now largely forgotten, light comedies like Fitzwilly and Some Kind of a Nut.
The Comic seemed to have the potential to be the film that Van Dyke would be remembered for: it offered him the chance to do the physical comedy at which he excelled and to play a darker character, one who was light years away from The Dick Van Dyke Show's Rob Petrie. Written and directed by Carl Reiner, the genius behind Van Dyke's classic sitcom, The Comic told a warts-and-all story of a silent film comedian.
Van Dyke plays Billy Bright, a silent film comic who rises to the top and then sinks like lead. Along the way, he loves and loses his beautiful co-star (Michele Lee, The Love Bug), drinks himself silly, and lets his ego essentially destroy his career; but he stays close to his on- and off-screen sidekick, "Cockeye" Van Buren (Mickey Rooney, Night at the Museum).
There have been plenty of "What Price Hollywood?" films (including one by that very name); unfortunately, The Comic does little to distinguish itself. It features very good performances from Van Dyke and Rooney, plus a few memorable scenes, but overall, it falls flat.
One big problem is the film never goes deep enough into its main character nor the subject of 1920s Hollywood. Although we spend over an hour and a half with Billy Bright, we don't take much away except superficial characteristics (he's selfish, he's arrogant, you know, the usual bad actor stuff). Van Dyke is fine here, but he seems much more comfortable doing physical comedy than emoting, and as a consequence, scenes that should be moving tend to be a bit inert.
Reiner's script is largely surface, skimming its way through years and incidents. The film never really seems to get a handle on the era it's portraying, and the balance of comedy and drama is uneasy. Some scenes stand out: one involves Billy, whose marriage ended because of his miserable behavior, attempting to reclaim his wife and child, with disastrous results; another features an older Billy appearing on Steve Allen's talk show after Allen spied an ad Billy put in the trade papers looking for work. Both of these scenes should have loomed much larger in the narrative, but they remain kind of self-contained, missed opportunities that could have given the film more depth. Also, as much as we see Billy behaving badly, he's never but so bad, as if Reiner couldn't bring himself to make Van Dyke but so troubled of a character.
The narrative also comes off a bit confused, as though Reiner felt compelled to insert something "funny" in the film every few minutes. Sometimes, those funny moments work; sometimes -- like a Citizen Kane riff -- they're funny, but slow down the pacing; and sometimes -- like Reiner's treatment of a stereotypical gay character, or a boozy wedding night that's really a little tragic -- they just don't work at all.
Presumably in an effort to shoehorn funny and touching into the same frame, we get lots of scenes of Billy and Cockeye as old men; thus, we get old people jokes along with bits of poignancy. But by devoting so much time to this part of Billy's life, Reiner has to skip through Billy's earlier -- and more interesting -- years.
The Comic flopped big-time at the box office. Want a clue why? Read the tagline, above. The take-away from this serio-comic film is anything but "funny" -- and why would you have to reassure your audience that a film is "funny" in the first place? -- and it ultimately does little in the way of telling about "Hollywood like it really was." In fact, beyond Billy being a has-been and forgotten by the studios -- largely because of his own actions -- Hollywood gets off pretty easy here. By trying so desperately to sell this as a Van Dyke/Reiner comedy, the studio (and presumably Reiner) shortchanged the film.
The disc is from Sony's on-demand line of DVD-R's, which means that there's not a whole lot to say about the tech, which is decent, or the supplements, which are nonexistent. In fact, this DVD doesn't even have a menu screen, it just goes straight to the movie.
The Comic is one of those films that will probably have more appeal now than it did when it was released; people tend to look more kindly at older films starring beloved icons that haven't been overplayed. It's an all right film, worth checking out for Dick Van Dyke fans, but don't expect too much.
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Scales of Justice
* Full Frame
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Mono (English)
Running Time: 96 Minutes
Release Year: 1969
MPAA Rating: Rated PG