Is it possible to schlep in a Gulfstream? That’s the $64,000 question at the center of Comedian, a winning and surprisingly well-crafted new documentary about Jerry Seinfeld’s recent return to the stand-up circuit. After his famous stint on network television ended four years ago, most of us assumed Seinfeld had retired to adjust to married life, count stacks of cash, and maybe take the occasional peek at reruns of his own show.
But it turns out that after a brief hiatus, Seinfeld started getting antsy and decided to retrain himself in the art of stand-up. He made the effort, in fact, with the equivalent of one arm tied behind his back: Almost defiantly, he tossed out all his old material and started from scratch. The movie shows him building up his routine slowly and painstakingly, moving from five minutes of material to 10 and then to 30, strengthening the foundations of still-wobbly bits about classic Seinfeld topics including think tanks, nose hair, and the answering-machine beep.
Seinfeld has more money now than most sheiks, and he deserves some credit not just for keeping his ego in check during his retraining sessions but also for putting the whole process of his comeback, which includes its share of embarrassing and forgetful moments, on film. We don’t get nearly as much footage of his personal life as we might like. There’s no trip with Jerry through the supermarket or to a Yankees game, no scene at the dinner table with his wife and baby. Comedian is purely a vocational study: Its central subject is completely confessional about his work and completely unrevealing about everything else.
But the Seinfeld we do get to see is affable and generally down-to-earth, if a little cruder and more calculating than his television persona would suggest. As corny as it sounds, he doesn’t have to prove anything to anybody, yet he seems desperate to convince himself that he’s still got it. And he seems genuinely, almost naively, dedicated to his chosen craft.
At the same time, Seinfeld isn’t exactly facing an uphill battle in his return to stand-up—which is where the schlepping question comes in. He’s going back to his roots, to a land where the work is frustrating and the hours hellish, but not to anything remotely resembling anonymity or poverty. When he’s on the road, he usually stays in hotel suites that are bigger than the clubs where he’s performing. And he flies from city to city, of course, in his own private jet. It’s a little like Michael Jordan coming out of retirement and deciding to refresh his skills in Turkey, or Al Gore getting the political juices flowing again by running for Nashville school board.
I didn’t have high hopes for Comedian going in. With Seinfeld himself serving as executive producer, there was reason to believe that the whole thing was little more than a vanity project. The man Seinfeld hired to direct the film, Christian Charles, had previously worked only in commercials; the two men met while making a series of ads for American Express.
But Comedian is neither a cloying tribute to Seinfeld’s ego nor amateurish in any way. For one thing, we’re actually left wishing for more time with Jerry, because a lot of the film is taken up by other comedians—not just Saturday Night Live alumni such as Chris Rock and Colin Quinn or legends such as Bill Cosby, but up-and-comers, too. Roughly a third of the movie is focused on Orny Adams, a 30-year-old comedian who has genuine talent but whose self-regard and ambition reach nearly psychotic levels of intensity.
Adams faces all the indignities Seinfeld doesn’t have to worry about: When Adams appears for the first time on Letterman, the producers tell him about five minutes before he’s due onstage that he can’t say the word “lupus” on television—which is a problem because his opening joke doesn’t just include the word but is downright lupus-centric. He decides to go with “psoriasis” instead, and the bit falls completely flat.
Eventually, though, Charles seems to forget about Adams, or to tire of him, eventually leaving his story by the wayside. But at its heart, Comedian is not about trying to succeed on the stand-up circuit. Rather, the film is a study of obsession, anxiety, and perfectionism that, in a nice bit of synchronicity, is itself made with a nearly neurotic attention to detail. Check out, for example, the scene that is edited to include only the silence of Seinfeld’s onstage pauses, to help illustrate the way he struggles to perfect the timing of the space between jokes. Not only is the sequence thematically apt, but it must have taken days in the editing room to perfect.
Dylan Kidd must have cringed when he saw last year’s About a Boy, because Roger Dodger, his debut both as director and screenwriter, is essentially an American version of that film. Hugh Grant’s confirmed-bachelor character, Will, was softened by spending time with young misfit Marcus. Campbell Scott’s advertising copywriter, Roger, goes through a similar, if slightly harder-edged, process with his nephew Nick (Jesse Eisenberg), a shaggy-haired lad who shows up at his Manhattan office one workday, demanding to be schooled in the art of picking up women.
But whereas Marcus signals his arrival at Will’s loft by leaning on the doorbell outside, Nick just pops up in Roger’s cubicle while his uncle is down the hall. And whereas Marcus is barely a teenager, Nick is already 16. Don’t you just love those quirky little differences between British and American culture?
As we learn in the film’s first scene, Roger loves nothing more than to impart his wisdom to the world in long, spiraling, self-satisfied spiels, so he is only too happy to oblige Nick’s request. Out on the sidewalk, the adman launches into a humdinger of a speech about how his luck with females has to do with making himself open to the electric currents of female sexuality. “I walk around in a state of total receptivity. I’m like a fucking lightning rod,” he tells Nick, who begins to look as though this whole trip-to-New York City-to-hang- out-with-my-cool- uncle thing wasn’t such a good idea after all. A little later, Roger counsels Nick to “free yourself from the tyranny of eye level,” which is another way of saying that if you hang around underneath enough stairwells, you can occasionally see up a woman’s skirt. Soon, Roger sneaks Nick into a bar, sequesters him at a table behind a row of potted plants, and proceeds to free both of them from the tyranny of sobriety.
Scott is perfectly cast as the narcissistic Roger, and he seems so grateful to have been handed a meaty, perfectly rounded role that he tears into it like a Rottweiler. Even Elizabeth Berkley and Jennifer Beals, as a pair of friends whom Roger and Nick win over at th bar, are much more charming and talented than you remember. But Kidd’s script has some of the longest scenes in recent Hollywood memory: By my count, there are barely more than a half-dozen in the whole picture. All of them have their moments, though none are quite able to sustain the complex tone Kidd seems to be aiming for, which combines dizzying handheld camerawork with black humor and ’40s-style banter.
Indeed, a lot of how you feel about the movie will depend on what you make of that opening scene, in which Roger holds forth to a table full of co-workers on evolution and the question of whether men will ever become obsolete. His monologue is whip-smart and engaging, but it’s also ridiculous and overwritten, as if Roger were channeling Stephen Jay Gould and Dorothy Parker at the same time. Believe it or not, he just gets more insufferable from there. CP