The Comeback Trail Synopsis: Indebted to the mob, two low-rent movie producers (Robert De Niro as Max and Zach Braff as Walter) try to save themselves by setting up an aging western star (Tommy Lee Jones as the once-famed Duke Montana) for a deadly insurance scam.
The quirky and occasionally obtuse machinations behind big-screen projects have become a feature-worthy subject on their own accord (most recently with Mank and The Disaster Artist). I have an inherent fascination with this inside-baseball perspective, as these subversive efforts exhibit the imperfect chaos behind a plethora of cinematic staples.
As a same-name remake of the fairly obscure 1982 comedy, writer/director George Gallo’s latest The Comeback Trail spins a satirical yarn centered on Hollywood’s seedy underbelly. The concept’s promise should modernize nicely with the industry’s rampant malpractice, but Gallo’s passably amusing film only operates in a colorfully vapid light.
To Gallo’s credit, The Comeback Trail possesses more gumption than his recent efforts (looking at you, Vanquish). The director’s playful embrace of the sleazy 70s setting chic displays a clear adoration for his subject matter, often setting an infectiously campy energy to mitigate other technical missteps. Gallo’s zippy hold on the material keeps the narrative beats engaging even as they travel through familiar territory.
I also praise the director for drawing dedicated performances from his rogue’s gallery of icons. It’s honestly been ages since Robert De Niro appeared this animated on screen. The Oscar stalwart basks in the scummy glow of his low-life producer protagonist, employing a plethora of sharp comedic touches to accent the character’s inherent unlikability. Morgan Freeman and Tommy Lee Jones also display their usual charms in supporting roles, with Jones often stealing the show as a mopping star tripping his way towards a potential comeback.
The Comeback Trail boasts enough spry comedic bits to entertain some, but I was left wanting more from the material’s blandly pleasant delivery. Gallo and co-writer Josh Posner lack the sharp tongue to say much within their premise, rarely taking opportunities to critique the industry’s antiquated norms and its single-minded desire for profits. Most of the comedic bits dumb themselves down in the favoring of repetitive pratfalls over sharply tuned observations. It’s a shame to see a premise with potent singularity utilized for simplistic, crowd-pleasing fare (a similar satire like Bowfinger found a far better balance between brains and humor).
The Comeback Trail never decides what kind of comedy it wants to be. Some elements hint at a darker, more nefarious spin on the premise’s hijinks (a fake trailer for one of Max’s horrible B-movie efforts shows some much-needed bite), but other moments settle for the most simplistic of gags. Whether it was a failure of nerve or a misunderstanding of the premise’s inherent strengths, Gallo’s well-intended efforts never discover a succinct identity onscreen.
While rarely a drag, The Comeback Trail misses on its chance to do much of interest with its promising premise. The lack of perspective greatly limits the film, but I do think it could find a suitable audience on streaming platforms.
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