As influential American critic Pauline Kael once noted, stand-up comics are invariably caught between the desire to please their audience and to explore new territory. Each avenue carries its own risks: the first might ensure a packed house, but could lead to atrophy and shtick; the second might fuel a maverick legacy, but could result in a confused audience and rejection. Rarely has this dilemma been presented so effectively as it is in Martin P. Zandvliet’s biopic A Funny Man, about postwar comic Dirch Passer (Nikolaj Lie Kaas).
As the film opens, Passer and his partner Kjeld (Lars Ranthe) have established themselves as Copenhagen’s biggest comedy duo. Dressed like Rat Pack apprentices, they perform an act that lies somewhere between Abbott and Costello and Martin and Lewis — with Kjeld as the constantly infuriated straight man and Passer as the buffoon audiences adore. Kjeld feels the enterprise is beneath them, boozing wildly to deal with his fatigue and boredom. Goaded one too many times by Kjeld, the self-doubting Passer quits the act and ultimately finds even greater success on his own, though his compulsive need for approval soon threatens everything he holds dear.
A Funny Man presents a fascinating account of the local response to the global impact of mid-century American pop culture, but its primary strength lies in its portrait of a man determined to pursue greater success no matter what the personal cost. The filmmakers’ knowledge and understanding of Passer’s work comes naturally — many of their family members worked on his shows — and Zandvliet directs with the same remarkable sensitivity that distinguished his debut feature Applause. The cast is excellent, most notably Kaas, who is fearless in his exploration of Passer’s tortured psyche. Though Kaas is one of Denmark’s biggest stars — his credits include Anders Thomas Jensen’s The Green Butchers, Lars von Trier’s The Idiots and Susanne Bier’s Brothers — Passer, in all his pathos, charisma and complexity, may prove to be his defining role. –TIFF