Last House on the Left gave us the tagline, “to keep from fainting, keep repeating it is only a movie.” The Stunt Man should have used “to keep from hating this movie, keep repeating it is only a comedy.”
Often, it is easy to lose site of this, but then again director Richard Rush has a bit of a track record with skewering genre films. The Stunt Man plays more like a psychological thriller than a comedy. Just as his earlier, but sadly forgotten film, Freebie and the Bean, comes across more as a buddy cop film than a comedy.
While I find it far easier to laugh at Freebie and the Bean and I never lose site of its comedic underpinnings, The Stunt Man often has me losing my interest. Its story is too contrived. Its perspective too narrow. Peter O’Toole is wonderful as the omnipotent film director, eager to control lives both on and off the screen and willing to do anything for a shot. I could watch him for days, but sadly most of the film is told through the eyes of fugitive Vietnam Vet played by Steve Railsback.
Though the film throws a lot of visual tricks at the audience, tricks designed to mimic the magic and illusions of filmaking, The Stunt Man never reaches a compelling level of madness. Each visual stunt feels like a deflated gag, not a scare, even of the fun house variety, but a limp reveal of an optic hoodwink.
I am sure I am being too harsh for fans of this film because at its heart The Stunt Man is a film that is as much in love with the fantasy of making films as it is poking fun at the reality of just how power crazed it makes those in the director’s chair. And perhaps, it simply must be said that I really have no fascination for large scale film productions. I simply find their excess to be in-excusable, especially when one witnesses the often paltry artistic returns that result from all that money and man power. So, in this fashion The Stunt Man is merely setting up straw men that I want to seen blow-torched and all it can do is blow them down.
Still, the film amuses me, when the right elements are on the screen. I laugh when the tune of a whimsical parade accompanies a platoon of massive film equipment trucks that roll in like an invading army or when Peter O’Toole descends from the heavens aboard his most elaborate and futuristic director’s perch. The sheer grandiose absurdity of these instances makes me grin and I can remind myself that it is only a comedy.