Considerably less interesting than 2009’s “Applause,” director/co-scenarist Martin P. Zandvliet’s sophomore narrative feature, “A Funny Man,” charts the life of hugely popular late Danish comedian Dirch Hartvig Passer. Result is handsomely produced and well acted, especially by lead Nikolaj Lie Kaas (“Brothers,” “Angels and Demons”), but never manages the kind of psychological insight that might transcend its portrait-of-a-tortured-artist cliches. Pic isn’t likely to make much of a bigscreen impact beyond territories where its subject is known and remembered.
When we first meet Dirch in the late 1950s, he’s already a big hit as one half of a comedy team with best pal Kjeld Petersen (Lars Ranthe) — and already fully neurotic about it, putting us at an immediate disadvantage in understanding how the two became so successful, or why Passer was so insecure about his talent.
By contrast, Kjeld is brash and confident, though chagrined by the fact that his partner is indisputably the public’s favorite. Kjeld also has a drinking problem that eventually forces an end to their professional union, one revived just briefly when he’s at death’s door in 1962. (His health problems and Dirch’s later ones are so sketchily drawn that one must assume “A Funny Man” was made primarily for auds who already know the comedians’ life stories inside out.)
In the interim and afterward, Dirch pursues a solo career, jonesing to be appreciated as a serious actor but pigeonholed as a comic. One of the pic’s few fully developed dramatic arcs is his determination to play tragic simpleton Lenny in the play of John Steinbeck’s “Of Mice and Men.” But when that dream is at last realized, audiences assume from his presence that it’s intended to be a laff riot.
Protag’s struggles with public image, manipulative handlers, alcohol, self-esteem and mental health, not to mention his several failed marital relationships and erratic paternal ones, are sputteringly portrayed in a script (by Zandvliet and Anders August) whose episodic progress never connects into a coherent whole or even spans a clear timeline. (When Kaas suddenly sports old-age makeup in the late going, we have no idea how many decades have gone by, or how Dirch has spent them.)
Amid an overall strong cast, toplining thesp is always absorbing to watch, suggesting complexities of character the writing can’t or won’t flesh out. It’s not his fault that (at least for audiences unfamiliar with Passer’s work) the reconstructions of beloved routines fall flat. The evidence here would suggest that, like such American contemporaries as Sid Ceasar, Milton Berle and Jackie Gleason, Dirch possessed a kind of comic genius that simply isn’t in synch with our taste in humor today.
Glossy widescreen pic offers plenty of colorful period trappings, capped by an “All That Jazz”-style production number melding biographical summary and showbiz fantasy. Unfortunately, like so much here, that splashy finale looks and sounds good without truly revealing anything about the figure performing at its center.