What to Watch This Weekend: "Gilbert"

Plus: One movie recommendation for every streaming platform.

What to Watch This Weekend: "Gilbert"

The Nut Graf: “Gilbert” (2017, The Peacock Network, ***1/2 stars out of ****) is the poignant memorial to Gilbert Gottfried you didn’t know you needed.


There’s nothing new in theaters I’m especially interested in writing about this week – if you’re intent on going out to the movies tonight or tomorrow, I highly recommend “Everything Everywhere All at Once” – so instead I’m going to pick out one good movie per streaming service again and hope you’ll find something to your enjoyment. For the most part, each pick is exclusive to that service. I’ll start with a film on NBC’s Peacock Network that surprised me with its depth and grace.

You could have no idea who Gilbert Gottfried was or why so many people were saddened by his death from complications of MS this week and still be moved to laughter and tears by “Gilbert,” the 2017 documentary about this eccentric, oddly endearing comedian. I dialed the movie up on a whim while making dinner last night and was so touched by what I was watching that I rewound to the beginning and called the wife over; less familiar with Gottfried’s schtick than I, she still found “Gilbert” both funny and disarmingly sweet. Directed by Neil Berkeley, it’s available exclusively on Peacock, but it’s maybe worth a trial subscription just because the movie so precisely captures Gottfried’s buzzsaw stage persona and his querulous offscreen personhood. He was a guy who, from his 20s, impersonated an ancient Jewish man, the relative you meet every three years at a bar mitzvah who corners you with jokes that are absurdly corny until you get home later that night and realize he probably was a genius. Gottfried was one of those comedians – Jack Benny was his progenitor – who was blissfully, mind-bendingly funny not for what he said but for how he said it. One of the absolutely NSFW videos that circulated online the day of his death was of Gilbert reading passages from “50 Shades of Gray” in THAT VOICE, the voice of an impatient alter kocker demanding to talk to the manager. He could read a grocery list in that voice and you’d wet yourself with laughter.

The shock of “Gilbert” is hearing Gottfried’s actual voice and seeing his actual life. Against every expectation – most certainly his own – he found himself in the new millennium married to a patient and adoring wife and father to two scrappy children, a daughter and a son. He himself speaks of this development as a dream he hopes he’ll wake up into, and through interviews with other stand-ups interspersed throughout “Gilbert,” you realize that, against all the odds, he’s the lucky comic who ended up happy. Through old photos and interviews with his two sisters – including Arlene Gottfried, a well-known New York street photographer who died shortly before the film was completed – we are introduced to a socially reclusive kid, maybe a little on the spectrum, who came alive onstage by hiding behind the persona of a shrill yutz. The yutz could say anything, did say anything, and it got Gottfried banned from the Emmys, booted from his gig as the voice of the AFLAC duck, and booed when he made a 9/11 joke at a Friar’s Club roast three weeks after the attacks. (His response was to immediately up the ante by launching into a version of “The Aristocrats” joke so legendarily filthy (again, NSFW) that Penn Jillette and Paul Provenza used it as the climax of their 2010 documentary of the same title.)

If “Gilbert” were a movie devoted to that guy, it might be funny but not so memorable. Instead, it’s a behind-the-stage portrait of a working comedian, a document of a reflexively performative artist when he’s not “on.” It captures the gentle hilarity with which Gottfried moved through life but also the immense affection in which he was held by his wife and children, his fellow comedians, and strangers in the street. May his memory be a blessing.


Netflix: “Hell or High Water” (2016) – If you’re on a Chris Pine kick after last week’s “All The Old Knives,” you owe it to yourself to check out this modern-day western/heartland crime drama that zips along without an ounce of fat. Pine and the brilliant, underrated actor Ben Foster play two bank-robbing brothers out for vengeance against the system that took the family farm; Jeff Bridges is the laconic lawman out to bring them to justice. With a finale that echoes Bogart in “High Sierra” (1941) and Kirk Douglas in “Lonely Are The Brave” (1962), “Hell” is as timeless as an outlaw saga and as relevant as a sub-prime lending crisis.


Amazon Prime: “Uncle Frank” (2020) – An Amazon Original that went too little seen on its launch, it’s a memory play of 1973 small-town America, seen through the eyes of a college freshman – the appealing Sophia Lillis – getting to know her gay New York uncle for the first time. The gifted Paul Bettany (Vision in “The Avengers” movies and on TV’s “WandaVision”) doesn’t get leads like this very often, and he’s tremendously moving as a man working up the nerve to return to the family from which he was exiled long ago.


Paramount+: “A Walk on the Moon” (1999) – This is probably my wife’s favorite movie and not just because she has a crush on Viggo Mortenson, oh, no, not at all. He plays “the blouse man,” a gentle hippie used-clothes salesman who comes around the Borscht Belt summer resort where Diane Lane brings her kids every summer while husband Liev Schreiber stays behind in the city. It’s the summer of 1969, Woodstock’s about to happen, Apollo 13 is about to lift off, and a happily married woman finds her thoughts straying. Honestly, guys, you should just put this on for your significant other and leave the room.


HBO Max: “Love and Mercy” (2014) – The Brian Wilson story, in two interwoven parts. In the 1960s (and better) half, he’s played by a tremulous Paul Dano, breaking away from the Beach Boys and treating the recording studio as a blank canvas for the creation of “Pet Sounds.” In the 1980s half, Brian (John Cusack) is a shell-shocked survivor of mental collapse under the tyrannical thumb of his shrink (Paul Giamatti) and rescued by the sweet-hearted car saleswoman (Elizabeth Banks) who’ll become his second wife.


Hulu: “Mass” (2021) – Why would you want to watch a movie about four people sitting at a table talking about a school shooting? Because the performances are incredible, for one thing. Jason Isaacs and Martha Plimpton play the parents of a son who was killed in the event six years earlier. Reed Birney and the incomparable Ann Dowd (HBO’s “The Leftovers”) play the parents of the boy who killed him. They’ve been brought together in the anonymous meeting room of a church in an attempt at closure. That’s it; that’s all – it’s as basic as set-ups come and as raw as human emotions get.


Disney+: “The Straight Story” (1999) – The most normal movie David Lynch ever made, and it’s a honey. The late, great Richard Farnsworth plays an old cuss in the Midwest who wants to visit his estranged brother (the late, great Harry Dean Stanton) several states over and, because he no longer can legally drive, takes his lawnmower on a 240-mile trip, having curious and enchanting encounters along the way. Based on a true story.


Showtime: “C’mon C’mon” (2021) – Not enough people saw this shaggy-dog charmer about a journalist (Joaquin Phoenix at his most tender) taking care of his young nephew (Woody Norman, a find) while his sister (Gaby Hoffman, who shoulda been nominated for something) has to cope with her estranged husband’s nervous breakdown. It’s a Mike Mills movie, which means it illuminates the invisible bonds of family – the aggravations and endearments – with the same care as “Beginners” (2010) and “Twentieth Century Women” (2016)


MUBI: “Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench” (2009) – Not enough people know about MUBI, a subscription streaming service, dedicated to independent and international filmmakers, that introduces one new movie every day. The pickings can be obscure but are almost all worthwhile, and sometimes you can stumble on a rarity like this first film by Damien Chazelle (“Whiplash,” “La La Land”), a rough but rhapsodic black-and-white musical – set in Boston! that started as the director’s Harvard thesis project.


The Criterion Channel: “Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy” (2021) – My favorite movie of last year comes to the best-curated VOD service. (It’s also available for a $3 rental on Amazon and elsewhere.) Three short fables of love, loss, hope, and regret, from the great humanist storyteller Ryusuke Hamaguchi.


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