Based on the 1982 film of the same name by Harry Hurwitz, “The Comeback Trail,” now on VOD, is star Robert de Niro’s third Hollywood satire after 1997’s “Wag the Dog” and 2008’s “What Just Happened.” It doesn’t pack the same kind of sardonic punch as those films but supplies a laugh or two.
Set in 1974, De Niro plays Max Barber, a Hollywood hanger-on and producer of bottom-of-the-bill b-movies with names like “Killer Nuns.” He dreams of the big time, of making an epic but his reputation and lack of money put his dream out of reach until he concocts a deadly scam.
With his unsuspecting partner and nephew Walter (Zach Braff), Barber sets up a new film starring Duke Montana (Tommy Lee Jones), a suicidal western star living in a home for retired and forgotten, actors. The tough old coot spends his days playing Russian Roulette, but when Barber offers him a gig, Duke thinks this might his comeback and puts away the gun.
Barber, who is being pressured by gangster Reggie Fontaine (Morgan Freeman) to repay a sizeable loan, has other ideas. His scam is to kill Duke, shut down the movie he never planned to finish, and, make a killing, literally, with the insurance money.
But, like so many things in Barber’s life, his scheme doesn’t go as planned.
“The Comeback Trail” is a movie in love with the movies. Barber and Fontaine banter in movie references—“I’m gonna choke you.” “Like Tony Curtis in the Boston Strangler?”—and, ultimately, it sings the praises of the power of the movies to inspire and transform lives.
Film fans may enjoy the sentiment but they likely won’t be as impressed by the slack pacing and obvious telegraphing of joke after joke. It takes ages to get to the heart of the one-joke premise and, while there are mild laughs sprinkled throughout, as soon as director George Gallo (who wrote “Midnight Run”) allows the story to limp on to the film set-with-the-film, the movie starts to run out of steam.
Of the three Oscar winners who headline “The Comeback Trail,” only Jones appears invested in creating a memorable character. His take on the “broke-down-over-the-hill-has been” Montana has enough flashes of pathos to hint at what this movie could have been, a bittersweet comedy about the dreamers who live and breathe celluloid, but the movie’s silly tone lets him down.