Monday, April 3, 2017

Film review—Documentary “Robert Klein Still Can’t Stop His Leg”

Robert Klein Still Can’t Stop His Leg
Directed by Marshall Fine
Premiered March 31, 2017 on Starz

Robert Klein and Fred Willard

Robert Klein was one of the first comedians I saw on HBO in the late ‘70s, when it was still called Home Box Office. And forty years on, he’s still one of the funniest men on the planet, as shown in Marshall Fine’s fond chronicle of Klein’s career and legacy, Robert Klein Still Can’t Stop His Leg.

The title refers to one of Klein’s signature bits, as well as pointing to his continued longevity in a field that eats its practitioners through attrition, drugs, irrelevance or simply old age. Klein seems to be one of the few comics who’s lived a comparatively normal existence—about the worst you could say is that his first marriage ended in divorce—and Fine, who structures the movie as a dozen chapters that take moment s from Klein’s life, doesn’t need to take any pains to show how normal he really is.

Klein grew up in the Bronx, and some of the film’s most amusing moments have him going back to the old neighborhood and tossing off his sardonic observations. His comedy has roots in his personal life—we meet his son, also a comedian, as well as his sister, with whom he reminisces about their parents—and the absurdity in the everyday, and many of his routines are classically comic riffs on such topics, but always with humanity peeking through the craziness.

But what’s most surprising (and heartening) about the movie—even amid seeing Klein’s hilarious stand-up and appearances on shows from Carson to Letterman and beyond—is discovering how many of the later generations of comics and performers name Klein as one of their biggest influences, if not the biggest: everyone from Billy Crystal, Bill Maher, Jerry Seinfeld and Jon Stewart to Jay Leno, Richard Lewis, Eric Bogosian and Ray Romano has a Klein tale to tell.

There’s even more touching reminiscences from the likes of actress Luci Arnaz—with whom Klein had a successful Broadway run in the musical comedy They’re Playing Our Song, for which he was nominated for a Best Actor Tony—and comic peers David Steinberg, Fred Willard and Don Rickles. But the focus rightly remains on Klein, whose five decades at the pinnacle of the comedy business are commendably summarized in Fine’s very fine portrait.

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