Only during the time of Covid could you explain a movie only making a few million, when it stars Oscar winners Robert De Niro, Tommy Lee Jones, and Morgan Freeman; and Zach Braff and Emile Hirsch aren’t chopped liver (I was going to refuse to mention Eddie Griffin, ever since I read in Seth Rogen’s great book, about an Anti-Semitic rant he went on with him in an elevator).
The critics tore this movie apart, but it’s really not that bad. Sure, it’s got jokes you see coming down Broadway (or, the Oregon Trail). It’s one of those weaker comedies you see De Niro doing nowadays for an easy paycheck (which sometimes just seem more painful, when we think of how brilliant Midnight Run was). Yet this has enough humor that it works. And no critic better tell me that the Coen brothers did such a brilliant job satirizing Hollywood better in Hail, Caesar! That movie, despite a few brilliant scenes, was rather weak. This merely has a weak 3rd act. The rest is kind of fun. It’s also perfect timing, when we’re seeing commercials for another Western that 91-year-old Clint Eastwood is doing (Cry Macho).
Oddly enough, the writer of Midnight Run (George Galllo) co-wrote, and directed this. Perhaps that’s why he used the name “Duke” (certainly the John Wayne thing doesn’t hurt, either).
Max Barber (De Niro) produces movies that are garbage, but make a little bit of money. His nephew and producing partner Walter Creason (Braff) is a bit more enthusiastic than the burnt-out Barber. This starts with them outside a theatre that is showing one of their movies, which nuns are protesting. Since Barber owes money to gangster Reggie Fontaine (Freeman), he needs some cash quick. In a darker scheme than The Producers, they decide they’ll get funding for a movie with a big former A-list cowboy star, Duke Montana (Tommy Lee Jones). He’s suicidal because of a scorned love, and he’s hitting the bottle. The scheme to make money involves Montana “accidentally” dying on the set, and Barber collecting big on the insurance. Creason knows nothing of this, and is just excited to be making a Western with the star.
Just as it was hysterical watching Charles Grodin trying to kill Warren Beatty in Heaven CanWait, I cracked up at the various ways Montana almost bites the bullet (no pun intended). Physical, slapstick comedy doesn’t usually work for me, but watching De Niro getting kicked by a horse and taking some abuse...tickled me.
As you can imagine, the cast is terrific (although I thought Freeman needed better lines to be a bit more intimidating). Braff plays naive perfectly, and De Niro didn’t seem like he was just phoning it in. Tommy Lee Jones, who never seems like he’s happy in interviews or life in general, not only plays this character brilliantly, but...I can imagine him reading this script and immediately wanting to do this.
Emile Hirsch does a fine job as a rich movie producer who might fund the movie. I’ve just always had a problem with Hirsch on screen. He always has the look like a guy that just came from his trailer after taking a few hits from a bong.
I remember seeing a movie called The Last Shot in 2004. I thought it was hysterical (Matthew Broderick, Alec Baldwin, Toni Colllette, Ray Liotta, Calista Flockhart, Tony Shalaub). The FBI secretly pays a first-time filmmaker to make his Western, but it has to be shot in Rhode Island. That’s because they’re really using it as a sting operation. The film tested poorly and went straight to video.
Perhaps parodying Hollywood is just too inside for people that aren’t in the business. Of course, cinephiles will love many scenes (especially the list of deaths from various movies). There’s also an end credit scene that will make Tarantino stand up and cheer.
2 ½ stars out of 5.