ROBERT KLEIN STILL CAN’T STOP HIS LEG: A Likeable Film About A Likeable Man
Robert Klein Still Can't Stop His Leg is a loving insight into the world of influential but sadly unknown stand-up comedian Robert Klein.
If a film has an unwieldy, esoteric title, it has my attention. Sheila Levine Is Dead And Living In New York, Come Back To The Five & Dime Jimmy Dean Jimmy Dean, and Alexander And The Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day, are all films I’ve watched thanks to the sheer, joyous length of words in their names. It sounds bizarre, but I’ve enjoyed all these films, so there must be a method to my madness!
So show me a film called Robert Klein Still Can’t Stop His Leg, and I. Am. There.
Who Is Robert Klein Anyway?
I’d never actually heard of Robert Klein, and as the movie soon makes clear, I’m far from the only one. Early in the film, there is a scene where he is beset by a group of pre-teen girls, drawn over by the presence of the camera. Trying to describe to these girls why he is famous using references they’d know proves a struggle; eventually he dredges up his appearance in How To Lose A Guy In 10 Days. “Pretty pathetic huh?” he smiles wryly at the camera.
For the fellow uninitiated, Robert Klein is a stand-up comedian, who was a mainstay on late-night shows and HBO specials between the late sixties and early nineties. He has inspired numerous comedians like Jon Stewart, Bill Maher, Jay Leno, Billy Crystal and Jerry Seinfeld, who all appear in the film to sing his praises.
Klein‘s stand-up is considered particularly influential thanks to his pioneering use of observational comedy; before him it was rare for comedians to include funny stories from their day-to-day life in their shows. A classically trained musician, he’s also famous for incorporating music into his sets. One of his most famous acts is improvising songs, the subjects of which have ranged from colonoscopies to social media.
A Loving Portrait
The film contains an enjoyable array of material. Scenes of Klein today are interspersed with home movies, clips from old stand-up shows, and talking heads. There’s not any particular rhyme or reason to the ordering, no grand, over-arching thread that follows through the years of Klein‘s life. It’s a cinematic scrapbook, that gradually builds a loving portrait of a man whose name more people should know.
Most of the film involves following Klein as he goes about his regular life, which involves family gatherings, lectures for groups of young stand-ups, local performances, and one last appearance on The Late Show With David Letterman.
Klein is always ‘on’; it’s rare that thirty seconds pass without him making some kind of wisecrack. The expectation might be that that would get annoying, but it never becomes the case. Klein comes across as a charming, genial man who cares very much about the art of stand-up, whilst never thinking too highly of himself. Over the closing credits we see Klein watching his performance in Sharknado 2. “I gotta make a living don’t I?”, he says, directly to the camera. There doesn’t seem to be an inch of egotism in him.
Director Marshall Fine is clearly a big fan of Robert Klein; it comes across in the warmth and admiration in the documentary. It’s a fine position to take, and he does a good job of transmitting his love of his subject to the audience.
What this does mean though, it that Robert Klein Still Can’t Stop His Leg is much more a loving look at the man than a probing one. To watch this film, you’d think the only bad times that Klein has had in his seventy-five years on earth were during his divorce from his opera-singer wife, Brenda Boozer. And even that is only given a few sentences.
I wasn’t looking for salaciousness, but a little more about the darker moments and unhappy times that are natural in any life could have given this film a little more weight.
I’m not sure how this film would play to people who are already fans of Robert Klein. I would understand if it seemed a little too shallow for them, or if they were frustrated with the lack of any new insight. Or maybe they would be happy just to spend some more time in the company of a man that remains so sharp and funny, well into his seventh decade.
For me, as a Klein novice, this felt like the perfect primer. There’s something really special in watching a documentary about someone, or something, that you aren’t familiar with, and then really enjoying it. It’s like the filmmaker has given you a gift.
(Oh, by the way, if you were wondering about the film’s strange title, it’s taken from this sketch.)
What are the best documentaries you’ve seen about a person or a subject you’d previously known nothing about?
Robert Klein Still Can’t Stop His Leg will premiere on Starz on March 31st, 10pm EST.
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