The Tribeca Film Festival, now in its 16th year, is a formidable festival. Throughout the 12 days fest, we witnessed world premiere film and television screenings, engaging talks, and once-in-a-lifetime reunions, and the festival enjoyed a record-setting attendance of more than 153,000 people at 531 screenings and talks with an additional 3,800,000 people participating via Facebook Live.
Tribeca has been building a reputation in the past two years for showcasing interesting comedic projects. In 2016, the festival offered a tremendous selection of comedies leaving us hopeful that TiFF would embrace a position as a hospitable home for comedic films. In 2017, Tribeca fell short by comparison to 2016, but still offered some interesting pieces.
The highlight, by a long shot, was Gilbert, a new documentary from director Neil Berkeley about comedian Gilbert Gottfried. Notoriously guarded and private, Gilbert Gottfried has spent his career as a character of sorts on stage and has kept his persona so undercover that even hardcore fans and some colleagues will say they’ve never heard his real voice, and don’t know much about him. So, when we heard there was a documentary about Gottfried, and that Berkeley had footage of the comic in his home, and interviews with his wife and kids, we were particularly intrigued.
The documentary premiered at Tribeca, and in a word, it’s outstanding. Berkeley takes us inside Gilbert’s home (we witness a muted Gilbert walking around in his robe and making lunches for his kids) and travels with him on the road, covering his career and his unusual quirks and compulsions. We watch Gilbert taking the bus to gigs to save money, or stockpiling free razors and toothbrushes from roadside hotels. And it’s all fascinating. But the most compelling parts of the film center on Gilbert’s close relationship with his sister, a talented semi-pro photographer and singer who is undergoing treatments for stage four breast cancer, with her brother at her side lending quiet support. Everything about Gilbert is quiet, in fact, in stark contrast to his stage persona. Gilbert is a tremendous portrait of a fascinating performer.
After the screening, Gilbert and his wife Dara joined Berkeley at the front of the theater for Q&A, where Berkeley revealed how he got Gilbert to agree to be the subject of documentary– he never asked. After gaining introductions via a mutual friend and meeting the Gottfrieds for lunch, Neil said that Gilbert’s wife Dara told him to just start coming around and film, and he did just that. The result is a film that is deeply touching, hilariously funny, and fast paced. Appearances from Artie Lange, Dave Attell, Lewis Black, Judy Gold, Jim Gaffigan, Arsenio Hall, Anthony Jeselnik and more, add insight and additional laughs.
Elsewhere in the festival, some less successful attempts. The brighter of two feature films, Literally, Right Before Aaron, follows Adam (Justin Long), who has not yet gotten over his ex (Cobie Smulders), dealing with the awkwardness of being invited to her wedding to her new boyfriend. Aaron, of course, is a perfect-on-paper type who everyone adores. Awkwardness ensues. There are laughs to be had, and the performances by Justin Long and Cobie Smulders are fine, but there’s nothing particularly new here in the film that calls to mind thoughts of 500 Days of Summer, Love Actually, almost everything David Schwimmer has ever done, a touch of Bridesmaids and an ending that throws a nod to The Graduate. There’s a great comedic supporting cast; Kristen Schaal, Peter Gallagher, Lea Thompson, Luis Guzmán, John Cho and Rick Overton all have roles, but aren’t given enough to do to save the movie from being forgettable. It’s not a bad movie, there’s just nothing new here.
A polar opposite in every way, The Clapper feels like it could have been a really exciting fresh film, if only things hadn’t gone horribly wrong once the story gets going. Ed Helms is “The Clapper” an actor (Eddie) in the loosest sense of the word. He earns a modest living by appearing on infomercials as an excited audience member, jumping from show to show with and without mustaches, goatees and hats, occasionally earning a little extra when he gets a line (“wait, you mean to tell me I can get a house for no money down!?”). His simple but easy lifestyle comes to a crashing halt when a late night talk show team discovers that there’s a man wearing silly disguises and showing up in audiences all over television, and decides to use his appearances for a running gag on the show, thereby destroying his anonymity, and ultimately his career as well as a budding relationship. As a premise, it’s fantastic, and Ed Helms is well cast in the title role. Tracy Morgan plays his best buddy and comedy fans will enjoy seeing him in a very untypical role for Morgan. Russell Peters also has some great moments as a Conan-esque late night host, but unfortunately, that’s where the fun wears off. The film loses its way quickly, with Eddie making choices that aren’t set up properly, and the romantic subplot between Eddie and the girl of his dreams makes little sense. All you’re left with is a thought that this movie could have been great. Still, the attempt at being different is appreciated. Save it for late night viewing on cable and where its too-quirky-for-its-own-good departures from the expected may be enough to keep you watching.
Finally, there’s the latest Seeso offering, There’s…Johnny which is executive produced and written by Paul Reiser and David Steven Simon, and directed David Gordon Green. The series has been 17 years in the making, Reiser revealed during a post-screening panel discussion and can boast the approval and participation of the Carson estate. Jeff Sotzing, Carson’s nephew administers the estate and is an EP on the series.
Seeso screened two episodes at Tribeca, and there’s a lot to like in the series, but it’s too soon to tell if this is a hit or a miss. The premise follows a young Nebraska boy who mistakes a standard response to a fan letter as a job offer, and hops a bus to follow his dream of working for the Tonight Show. The team at NBC takes a liking to the fresh-faced kid, and he does indeed get a job behind the scenes. The series uses some clever devices to combine real footage from Carson’s Tonight Show with the scripted goings on of the crew who makes the show happen, and the sets (which you can see in the series’ trailer) are gorgeous.
But while we were hoping for something Larry Sanders-esque, showing us the wild goings-on behind the scenes of television’s most revered late night show, it seems from the first glimpse that the Carson show may be just the window dressing for a series about a couple of kids in the 70’s, and that feels like a missed opportunity to do something extraordinary. There are some powerful moments, particularly an emotional close to episode four, (you’ll have to wait and see for yourself), and Jane Levy and Ian Nelson are likeable as Joy, a talent coordinator for the show and Andy, the fresh-faced Nebraskan kid that she takes under her wing. But there are early hints that the series may suffer from some of the problems that plagued music biz themed series Vinyl and Roadies. The jury is still out on There’s…Johnny until we can see more, but Reiser and crew’s passion for the project has us rooting for its success, and it’s definitely worth checking it out for yourself when it debuts on Seeso in June.