Movies about the life story of comedians are, paradoxically, rarely funny. Sure, films like [i]Chaplin [/i]and [i]Man in the Moon[/i] may feature great comedic bits from the actors they're biopics of, but the bipic, by nature, is a tale of ups and downs, in which the person's life, no matter how great it actually was, seems fraught with misery, regret and loneliness--three emotions I'm an expert at wallowing in.
It's not that shocking then that [i]The Comic[/i], the life story of fictional silent comedian Billy Bright, is a pretty dark little movie. What's surprising is the people that put it together. It's written and directed by Carl Reiner and starring Dick Van Dyke, not exactly two names you'd expect to see in a film that's filled with pathos.
Van Dyke does an excellent job as Bright, a slapstick master who seems like an amalgam of Harold Lloyd, Buster Keaton and Fatty Arbuckle. While a talented pratfall artist, Bright is, as typical Hollywood cliche goes, a womanizer and a drunk, much to the chagrin of his first wife and true love Mary (Michele Lee).
The film begins at Bright's funeral, where a pie being thrown at the eulogist provides an odd introduction to the bizarro dark humor that follows. From the grave, Bright narrates his life story, from his start in pictures to his refusal to make talkies to his final days, and the only real continuing factor in his life is his best friend Cockeye, played by Mickey Rooney.
The showpieces of the film are clearly supposed to be the films-within-the-film that Bright stars in, and they're excellent recreations of the type of two-reel vaudeville antics that prevailed in much of the early silent films. There's so many of them, however, that they come at a cost--some of the screen time these films get could have easily been used to fill in the gaps in Bright's life, of which there are many. The film skips quickly from Bright giving up on talkies to his wasting away in a tiny apartment, trying for a comeback, and some bridge between the two segments would have been much less jarring.
Fortunately, Bright is an interesting enough character to carry it off. Van Dyke is an expert at playing the lonely, desperate character, and the structure of his sentences as he talks to his (now ex-)wife at her new house has the same frantic sadness that much of Shelly Levine's character does in [i]Glengarry Glen Ross[/i], to the point where you think David Mamet or Jack Lemmon might have watched this thing as a guide. In one of the film's final scenes, Van Dyke even gets a chance to play a second role, that of Bright's effeminite, fashion designer son, and he manages to play what could be a caricature with dignity while still playing Bright himself as looking at his son with, not exactly disdain, but confusion and regret.
While too uneven to really be considered a great film, [i]The Comic[/i] is certainly an underseen little drama, and serves well as a melancholy love letter to the silent film era. It's worth seeing for Van Dyke's performance alone, though the supporting cast, which also includes Cornel Wilde, (briefly) Gavin MacLeod, Isabel Sanford, Mantan Mooreland, Steve Allen (as himself) and Reiner himself, is certainly good as well. Don't be fooled by the box art, which, like the original release, tries to sell this as a screwball comedy, and you're in for a minor treat.