Only a few minutes into The Comeback Trail, you clearly get the sense that you’re watching a throwback of a movie. For all the money, it seems like this flick is the sort of thing you’d stumble across on television one Saturday afternoon. Taken on those terms, this is a mildly amusing comedy. However, as a full on new release (even if it is a remake), hoping to catch your attention in a bigger way, it comes up short. So much of this film just resides on the surface level, never diving deeper. Considering the potential for a big-time Hollywood satire here, it’s hard not to have hoped for at least a bit more.
A remake of the 1982 film of the same name, The Comeback Trail is certainly a bit of fun. At the same time, though, it’s a shadow of what it could have been, as well as what has come before. Satires of Hollywood can be high art or low art, but they usually have a major critique. Here, it just seems like a silly idea. The idea is executed, for the most part, but you can’t help but want a deeper dive.
Spare a thought for the cast here. Anything that brings together veterans like Robert De Niro, Morgan Freeman, and Tommy Lee Jones is worth your time. Whether it’s an Oscar-caliber drama or a simple comedy, they’re legends. Here, however, they all sort of just sleepwalk through this, even though they clearly are enjoying some of their moments. It’s just another disappointment to witness.
A tale of a producer in desperate times, Max Barber (De Niro) used to be respected in Hollywood. Now, along with his nephew Walter Creason (Zach Braff), they make absolute trash. Max is holding on to a screenplay that he thinks will win him an Oscar, one that more successful producer James Moore (Emile Hirsch) wants badly. Owing money to mobster Reggie Fontaine (Freeman), Max may finally have to sell it to him. At least, that’s the situation until a moment on James’ latest set leads Max to an epiphany. Convincing Reggie to finance another project, he and Walter dust off an old western, with a unique goal in mind. This time around, he plans to hire aa faded movie star and have them die on set, collecting the insurance money. It seems easy, especially when they cast the suicidal former legend Duke Montana (Jones). Of course, it’ll be anything but easy.
The more Max sets up potential death for Duke, the more he thrives. Almost without noticing, their director (Kate Katzman) is making a terrific film. However, Reggie is getting impatient, and soon will arrive on set to kill Max and Duke. So, desperate times call for desperate measures.
Watching actors of the highest caliber just sort of exist here is a bummer. Now, no one is bad, in the least. Zach Braff and Robert De Niro have some decent chemistry throughout. Emile Hirsch gives off a solid Hollywood scumbag vibe. Tommy Lee Jones apes some of his more traditional characters, while Morgan Freeman gets to play a rare villain. They’re all fine. The thing is, they’re just all capable of more, which The Comeback Trail does not provide.
Director/co-writer George Gallo seems largely to blame here. He and fellow scribe Josh Posner always go for the easy joke, as opposed to the more complicated one. Gallo’s direction occasionally leads to a decent moviemaking sequence on set, but the script is just too iffy to work. Frankly, it’s surprising that this cast signed on after having read this screenplay.
The Comeback Trail will play better on cable. Perhaps that’s really minor praise, but that’s about the best one can hope for. As something you’d stumble across on television, it does the trick. Aside from that? Folks, you can do better. Trust me, I wanted to love this one. It just wasn’t in the cards.