TIFF Review – A Funny Man

The interesting thing about movies like A Funny Man is how an audience can see a pop culture icon struggle throughout an entire career when that audience has no previous knowledge of the subject or the work he worked so hard to perfect.

For me, at least. Perhaps some in the TIFF audience knew about Dirch Passer (Nikolaj Lie Kaas) and his rich history in live comedy, film and television. I had no foreknowledge of his work, alone or with partner Kjeld Petersen (played by Lars Ranthe, looking for all the world like Phil Collins as played by Colm Feore). Passer’s work is so beloved in his homeland that when released in Denmark it was titled simply with his first name. Unfortunately, the scope of his artistic contributions are barely scratched in this by-the- numbers biopic, a fact I only discovered through some post-screening research. But I could feel it in the film, which plays like the doughier parts of Billy Crystal’s Mr. Saturday Night woven with the even more self-destructive threads left over from Raging Bull.

Passer worked in over one hundred films and television programs but to judge from this film, his work consisted exclusively of theater work. Revue shows for the most part, sketches and songs performed as part of a duo with Petersen in the Abbott and Costello/Martin and Lewis mold. This serves the film well for its framing as a love story between two men who work well together with material neither much respects, with Petersen caving into self-loathing while Passer used it as fuel to greater success.

The idea of a popular artist laced into a straitjacket by success is an interesting path, but when the lead character is, by all accounts, a neurotic mess given to bouts of depression, alcoholism, disloyalty and artistic pretension, its difficult to muster much sympathy from an audience. Unless, and here is the rub, there is an existing love for that figure and the work that he has done, at which point it provides an intriguing peek behind the curtain of a warmly regarded performer–otherwise, it plays like a curiously motivated apologia for childish man whose greatest ambition was to play Lenny from Of Mice and Men, perhaps the greatest literary man-child of them all.

As might befit a film about performers, the actors are the greatest asset here. Ranthe is achingly angst-ridden when as the comedian who realizes that even though he’s the more talented of the two, he is most definitely not the most liked. Kaas (whose flubbery face reminded me alternately of Tom Stoppard and Thomas Haden Church) takes on what must have been a knee-knocking proposition, playing a vaunted star in a warts and all display. The problem with an actor playing any kind of discipline on screen is believability, but at least with singing or painting, you can fake it. Comedy routines are a whole other form that cannot be faked, and while I didn’t necessarily laugh at everything I saw the duo perform, I certainly bought it as a successful act.

Much of the criticism that I heard about the film before the screening centered around the difficulty replicating or following the rat-a-tat pas de deux via subtitles. To me, this like suggesting that one cannot appreciate or enjoy an aria unless one speaks fluent Italian. More to the point, an artist like Passer is under served by a movie-of-the-week script, the thin summary of an entire life’s work, and a last minute grab for poignant All That Jazz ending.

Like many artists, it makes greater sense to try and enjoy the original.

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