And the Winner Is . . . Growing Up Smith vs. The Comedian

Do you think it is (or about to be) tough being a recent immigrant in Trump’s America? Picture being a family from India in small-town America of the 1970s.

I’d wager it’s the small town South in Growing Up Smith, based on the attire, accents and demeanors of white characters, although a title card at the beginning of the family comedy states only, “America, 1979.”

The title refers to Smith Bhatnagar, a 10-year-old whose father wanted an all-American name for his son but didn’t understand he chose a common surname. Played with impressive comic timing and charming goofiness by Roni Akurati, an Indian-American actor making his feature-film debut, Smith loves America, the Bee Gees, Saturday Night Fever, Kentucky Fried Chicken and gym shorts with really high, striped, white sports socks.

An early flash-forward to adulthood reveals the two loves of Smith’s life would become the pretty white girl next door and the wife he would marry in India as part of an arranged coupling. I would add a third: the American girl’s father, auto mechanic Butch (Jason Lee), who helps Smith “man up.”

A misfired rifle, brushes with bullies and knowing adult narration bring to mind A Christmas Story, albeit Growing Up Smith is set 39 years later and Halloween is the story’s central occasion. Drama comes from the tug-of-war between Indian tradition and American assimilation, but this is not a political movie. It’s a fond look back at character-building times.

Credit for the gentle tone goes to Gregory Scott Houghton for the original script and a couple of immigrants: Italian-Australian producer Frank Lotito, who also makes his theatrical directorial debut with Growing Up Smith, and co-writer/co-producer Anjul Nigam, who also sinks his teeth into playing Smith’s by-the-Hindu-book father, who provides many of the most comical lines and moments. You may recognize him from True Detective, Grey’s Anatomy, a ton of other TV and movie roles, or more than 30 appearances (and counting) as the supervisor of the Indian outsourcing company that supplies jokes to the host of Jimmy Kimmel Live!

He and Lotito deserve special kudos for drawing a sweet and tender performance out of young actress Brighton Sharbino, who plays Amy, the girl next door. She adeptly balances light and emotional scenes, proving she has range beyond the bat-shit-crazy killing machine she played on The Walking Dead.

Growing Up Smith was directed by Frank Lotito; written by Anjul Nigam; and stars Jason Lee, Anjul Nigam, Hilarie Burton, Poorna Jagannathan, Shoba Narayan and Roni Akurati. Opens Friday at AMC 30 at the Outlets, Orange.

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How is this for a theory? The Comedian would have been a better film if its budget were closer to Growing Up Smith‘s $2 million than the estimated $15 million it cost to make the longtime passion project of writer/producer Art Linson and star Robert De Niro.

Don’t blame Bobby D. Refreshingly, this will not join the string of recent pictures one of America’s greatest actors famously sleepwalked through. He puts his all into portraying insult comic Jackie Burke, who struggles on the comedy circuit because people don’t come to see him, but rather for the Ralph Cramden-like TV buffoon he played (and abandoned) decades earlier.

My problem is despite The Comedian being set mostly in New York City and adjacent—with some forays to Florida—it reeks of Hollywood. Overproduced Hollywood. Dank bars, comedy pits, greasy spoons, matchbox apartments and homeless shelters never looked so good.

I did not believe for a second that Leslie Mann’s character would be seduced by the much-older Burke, that his agent (a wasted Edie Falco—and not in the Nurse Jackie sense) would keep taking his verbal abuse, or that Patti LuPone and Danny DeVito were a married couple. The hipsters by Benetton extras posing as comedy-club crowds would never sit through a set by Jackie Burke, let alone laugh through it because they already heard those lines from “Roastmaster General” Jeff Ross, who punched up the script’s standup scenes.

What most took me out of the picture was the condescending way social media was used as the catalyst for Jackie’s rise. Cellphone video of Burke shot from across a room by a young man goes viral, but the uploaded footage includes memes that came from director Taylor Hackford and cinematographer Oliver Stapleton’s closeups. The Comedian is just way too slick for its own good.

The Comedian was directed by Taylor Hackford; written by Art Linson, Jeff Ross, Richard LaGravenese and Lewis Friedman; and stars Robert De Niro, Leslie Mann, Edie Falco, Danny DeVito, Patti LuPone and Harvey Keitel. Now playing countywide.

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