The Other McCain

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Bad Movies and Robert De Niro (and Why Donald Trump Is Not Literally Hitler)

Posted on | February 17, 2017 | Comments Off on Bad Movies and Robert De Niro (and Why Donald Trump Is Not Literally Hitler)


In March 1975, Robert De Niro was 31 years old when he won the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor for his breakthrough role as young Vito Corleone in The Godfather, Part II. Leslie Mann was barely 3 years old at the time, and there was something distinctly weird about Mann, now 44, being cast as De Niro’s love interest in The Comedian. How do you write a romantic comedy with a 73-year-old leading man? To be honest, the smart answer to that question is, don’t even bother trying.

Let me put it another way: In 1981, Henry Fonda was 76 when he scored an Oscar for On Golden Pond, in which he played an old man whose wife was Katharine Hepburn, then age 74. Robert De Niro may be in better health at age 73 than Henry Fonda was at age 76, but it is still asking too much of audiences to foist upon them a septuagenarian leading man who wins the heart of a woman young enough to be his daughter.

Far be it from me to encourage the feminist grievance-mongers who so often complain about how actresses suffer discriminatory treatment because middle-aged male movie stars continue to be cast in leading roles, whereas there are far fewer lead roles for actresses over 40. It is not the sexist bias of movie producers that accounts for this disparate treatment, but rather the tastes of movie audiences. If you want to make big money in Hollywood, the question you are constantly trying to answer is, What will the typical 15-year-old boy pay money to see at the suburban multiplex? (Answer: Definitely not Meryl Streep.)

Do the Hollywood studios want to make money or do they want to make art? Well, it can be argued, they want to do both, but the idea behind this latest De Niro movie seems to have been a make-work project for old actors, and not a very clever idea as such projects go. It is possible to make great movies about old people, e.g., Walter Matthau won Best Actor for his role in The Sunshine Boys, and Jessica Tandy won Best Actress for her role in Driving Miss Daisy. However, neither of those films tried to place the elderly protagonist into a boy-meets-girl romantic-comedy plot. Such a plot simply doesn’t work as a narrative arc with mass audience appeal, and no 15-year-old boy is going to buy that ticket at the multiplex.

Leslie Mann and Robert De Niro in ‘The Comedian.’

The idea behind The Comedian was a “development” project for nearly 10 years, and four different writers are credited for the script:

It all began with a funny idea. After working on a movie with Mr. De Niro called “What Just Happened,” the producer and screenwriter Art Linson suggested they collaborate on a movie about a comic who makes the woman he’s roasting laugh so hard she dies. . . . “That excited me,” Mr. De Niro said. “You get one scene, and you want to do the whole movie.”

That was a decade ago, and exactly why this idea for one scene should inspire an entire movie is a mystery. Yet the real question is why so much effort would be expended to push The Comedian forward, despite all the omens warning that the movie was destined for Flop City.

How an Oscar-Bait Scheme Went Wrong

Go ask around Hollywood. If a top producer like Art Linson can get an Oscar-winning actor like Robert De Niro sold on an idea for a movie, it’s never going take 10 years to make that project happen. At one point, Sean Penn had agreed to direct The Comedian, and it’s hard to imagine a studio executive presented with such an all-star package deal saying, “No, let’s don’t make that movie” — unless the basic idea was utterly stupid.

Critics don’t want to say bad things about a project like this, which got a limited release in December on the outside chance of getting an Oscar nomination or two. That’s a big clue to the industry insider thinking behind The Comedian. Linson and De Niro really wanted to make a movie called “Let’s Get Another Oscar for Robert De Niro,” but what they made instead was, “Let’s Watch Robert De Niro Lose His Dignity.”

We may stipulate, arguendo, that the idea of a once-popular comedian trying to make a comeback could make for a good movie, as this was the basic plot of The Sunshine Boys. However, that was a Neil Simon script, and both of the stars of that movie — Matthau and George Burns — were known primarily for their comic roles. Perhaps what inspired Art Linson to think he could do something like that with De Niro in The Comedian was De Niro’s role as a delusional stalker in The King of Comedy, but that was a very dark drama directed by Martin Scorcese. Certainly, De Niro is capable of being funny (e.g., father of the bride in Meet the Fockers), but the problem with The Comedian is not the star, it’s the story.

David Sims at The Atlantic gets to the heart of the problem:

Early on, [De Niro’s character] Jackie gets in an altercation with a heckler at a standup set and punches him; given the chance to apologize by a judge, he refuses and goes to prison. Stuck doing community service, he meets Harmony (Leslie Mann), a fellow self-loathing miscreant that he immediately falls for, despite their 29-year age difference. Unfortunately, that necessitates dealing with her father Mac (Keitel), some sort of retired mobster with a serious attitude problem. . . .
It’s almost like The Comedian is trying to distract from the inherent ridiculousness of its central romantic pairing by throwing celebrity cameos and grumpy mobsters at the audience.

What’s going on here? Wishful thinking.

Art Linson is 74 and the director, Taylor Hackford, is 72, and so you’ve got these old guys who expect the audience to believe that a guy in his 70s can score with a woman 30 years younger. This idea is not beyond the realm of possibility, but it isn’t the kind of story that most people are going to enjoy paying $8 to see at the cineplex. Only if we suspect that the purpose of this project was to grab an Oscar (which is why they got Helen Mirren’s husband to direct it, and filled the supporting cast with a bunch of Academy members) can we begin to understand the existential rationale of The Comedian — a movie about show business, whose intended audience was the show-business people who vote for the Oscars.

OK, so you may be wondering by now why I’ve expended a thousand words analyzing a movie you weren’t going to pay $8 to watch anyway. And the answer is that what’s wrong with The Comedian is the same thing that’s wrong with the media coverage of President Trump.

Keep in mind Andrew Breitbart’s mantra: “It’s about the narrative.”

The liberal media is always trying to turn politics into a story they can sell and, beginning in 2015 (if not earlier) the story they were selling was entitled The First Female President of the United States.

What this narrative required was a villainous Republican opponent for the courageous Democrat heroine to defeat, and Donald Trump was every liberal journalist’s dream of what a GOP villain should be. Then comes the unexpected plot twist: AMERICA ELECTS EVIL REPUBLICAN!


Never before in the history of journalism have we seen members of the press corps so guilty of believing their own phony bulls–t.

Case in point: The character assassination of Steve Bannon.

I’ve known Steve Bannon since 2011, when I interviewed him about his Sarah Palin documentary The Undefeated, and I know a lot of people who worked with Bannon at, including people who personally disliked him, and who felt that Bannon took the site in the wrong direction after Andrew Breitbart’s death in 2012. Yet I never once got the slightest hint that Bannon was a racist, a sexist or a Jew-hater, and so when I started seeing Bannon portrayed in liberal “news” stories as some kind of latter-day Martin Bormann, I knew it was a lie — “fake news.”

The Adorno-Marcuse Cult of Left-Wing Paranoia

Steve Bannon is a conservative populist, period. Only if you’re a cult disciple of Theodor Adorno and Herbert Marcuse can you believe that an American conservative populist is necessarily a crypto-fascist. Yet dozens of reporters keep publishing stories that depict Bannon as a Nazi fanatic — because Trump is literally Hitler, of course — and this is merely the logical sequel to the failure of Hillary Clinton to fulfill the media’s fantasy narrative, The First Female President of the United States.

That narrative was as flawed as the idea of casting Robert De Niro as a washed-up comedian who scores with a woman 30 years younger. And the whole problem with the narrative that the media are using as the script for their sequel, Literally Hitler, is that it involves liberal journalists writing stories with their fellow liberal journalists as the intended readership, just like having Helen Mirren’s husband direct a show-business-themed comedy starring Robert De Niro was so obviously a made-for-Oscar project. People aren’t lining up at the mall cineplex to pay $8 bucks to watch The Comedian, and the media’s bulls–t script for Literally Hitler isn’t going to make people line up to vote Democrat.

Wishful thinking sometimes does make for a good movie, but you have to remember life isn’t like the movies. The “Manic Pixie Dream Girl” idea — Leslie Mann as the cute-but-quirky woman who can’t help falling in love with the washed-up former TV star 30 years her senior — is in this case so far-fetched that it ruins the whole move. Yes, it is true that men in their 70s might find themselves looking for romance, and yes, it is possible (just barely possible) that a 40-something woman would be interested in a guy that age, if he were particularly healthy for his age, but trying to sell that story, while at the same time making De Niro a sympathetic and believable character as a stand-up comic, is just too much.

Nor is wishful thinking likely to produce good results in politics. However much as every reporter in D.C. wanted Hillary Clinton to become president, she was never a plausibly heroic figure, and trying to turn Trump into Hitler is even less plausible. If the media want to sell us a story about Trump as a guy who doesn’t understand how Washington works, who talked his way into a job that he doesn’t know how to do, maybe that narrative — titled The Ambition Trap, perhaps — would sell enough $8 tickets to elect Elizabeth Warren as president in 2020. In expecting Americans to buy their ill-conceived Literally Hitler project, however, the media are merely doubling-down on the wishful thinking that failed to elect Hillary Clinton. Only because of their own political bias are reporters missing the real story, the box-office smash biopic we might call Miracle on Pennsylvania Avenue.

How the heck Donald Trump became president is one of the most amazing stories in American history. Trump has outdone Lou Gehrig for the claim of being “the luckiest man on the face of the earth.” If you had asked me to bet $20 on Trump’s chances last October, I wouldn’t have taken that wager even if you’d offered me 5-to-1. On Election Day, I voted for Trump with a fatalistic sense of doom that Hillary would be our next president and no one was more surprised than me when the votes started to be counted and Trump took the lead in Florida and Ohio. Even more was I shocked when Trump won Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania. The outcome was so far beyond anything I’d imagined that it was not until 1 a.m. that I dared to blog anything about the results for fear of looking like a fool for even daring to hope that Trump might actually win.

Why can’t the media see this as the happy story it is? Trump is not Hitler, mainly because America is not Germany in 1933, but also because Hitler was an embittered loser, while Trump has always been a winner.


Well, it won’t be long before you can watch The Comedian for free with your Hulu account, and not too long after that the 2018 midterm elections should give us an early box-office number for the media’s anti-Trump campaign. We don’t know how the story ends, but given what we’ve seen so far, it looks like the media fantasy script for a Democrat comeback could be retitled Wishful Thinking, and it’s headed to Flop City.



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