The Comeback Trail follows Max Barber and Walter Creason (Robert De Niro and Zach Braff), two down-on-their-luck Hollywood producers who can’t seem to make a hit. In debt with a ruthless mobster (Morgan Freeman) and trying to stay afloat, Max gets an idea for a scam that could bail them out of financial ruin. For their next film, he hires ageing movie star Duke Montana (Tommy Lee Jones) as their lead actor with the hope that he’ll die on set so that they can collect the insurance money. However, as the filming commences, Duke, Walter and the rest of the team are re-invigorated by the process and Max must hide his true intentions.
Blending the wild west antics of City Slickers with the satirical edge of Wag the Dog, The Comeback Trail is is an over-the-top, silly comedy that probably shouldn’t work but absolutely does. Written and directed by George Gallo, there’s simply an infectious joy within the film that invests you in the characters. Backed by a solid cast and a (mostly) entertaining script, Gallo has created a movie that likely won’t be remembered in the long run but certainly entertains.
Although his choices have been hit (Last Vegas, Analyze This) and miss (Dirty Grandpa, Analyze That) throughout his career, De Niro has always shown an interest in comedy. While he’s never been great at wackier material, there’s no doubt that he seems invested in his performance here. In fact, Comeback allows DeNiro’s performance as a corrupt producer to tap into the type of sleaze that makes him such a memorable villain.
However, while De Niro may be the film’s central focus, it’s really Braff and Jones who steal the show. Braff has an incredible ability to move between silliness and earnestness within his performances, which proves invaluable when held up against De Niro’s frenetic energy. Meanwhile, as washed up veteran Duke Montana, Jones absolutely shines as his character begins to find his stride. Jones has always had the ability to bring gravitas to a role and he manages to offer the film’s strongest performance by far.
Embedded within the film is a message about moving forward. While Max and Duke remain entrenched in the pain of their past, the world around them continues to grow and change. They are the old guard. Living in an era where toxic masculinity and white privilege run rampant and remains unchallenged, both men have been willing to compromise their integrity for the sake of fame and success.
However, whereas Max seems unable to face a new world, Duke recognizes the damage that he’s caused and seeks to do things differently. (In this way, the film also contains a subtext of ‘white guilt’ as Duke carries the burden of turning his back on visible minorities due to his own selfishness, both on and offscreen.) Embracing change with humility and grace, Duke is grateful for a second chance. By hiring Megan as director and attempting to repair the mistakes of his past, Duke genuinely wants to live his life differently in the future. Through Duke’s journey, Comeback shows that there’s room for change—and potentially hope for those who have caused the harm in the first place
While Comeback is far from perfect, it does have a liveliness and fun that genuinely works. More importantly, even though it may be over-the-top, there’s more to this story than first appears. As Braff, De Niro and Jones slog through the trials of the movie industry, Comeback reveals the brutal toxicity that has held it together for so long. Though change is definitely in the wind, the film shows that Hollywood really can be murder.
The Comeback Trail is available on demand on Friday, August 13th, 2021.