Get Bruce

One of the most revolting sights in the world occurs when celebrities lavish praise on those "little people" who work behind the scenes, so it would seem unlikely that a movie like Get Bruce! could stir anything in an audience other than its gag reflex. And, sure enough, this insider’s tribute to one of Hollywood’s unsung comedy writers is a difficult pill to swallow.

If Bruce Vilanch came up to you on the street, you’d see an overweight, bespectacled loudmouth clad in a faded T-shirt and a bushy-haired Prince Valiant cut. He looks like he should be clamoring for Robin Williams’ autograph instead of writing material for him. But Vilanch has written jokes and musical numbers for scores of celebrities, and along the way he’s managed to make himself an indispensable part of the major awards ceremonies. It was Vilanch who gave a young Bette Midler the critical career advice: "You’re pretty funny. You should talk more onstage." It was Vilanch whom Whoopi Goldberg turned to for jokes when her then-boyfriend Ted Danson was about to make his infamous blackface appearance at the Friar’s Club. And it was Vilanch who had the brainstorm of morphing Billy Crystal into scenes from the Best Picture nominees for the 1998 Oscars show.

Get Bruce! begins on a bad note by confusing entertainment with empty voyeurism, as we’re forced to endure a "spontaneous" phone call between Vilanch and Goldberg at a moment when camera crews just happen to be present at both ends of the line. Clips from Vilanch’s successes, some of them as hollow as Liz Taylor’s Celebration of Life birthday party, are spliced together with no idea except to smother us in glamour.

The movie eventually settles down to its proper subject – Vilanch himself, his profession, and how he fell into it. Vilanch describes the way he tailors jokes to the personalities who will be telling them, and we hear his words coming out of the mouths of people as varied as Sigourney Weaver, Raquel Welch, and Lily Tomlin. (Not all of his clients may appreciate his efforts: a grim-looking Steven Segal is heard muttering over a Vilanch script, "It’s all very tantric.")

Much – too much, in fact – of the film is devoted to interviews with Midler, Goldberg, Crystal, and Williams in which they ruminate about their experiences with Vilanch. Of them all, only Midler has more than the usual trade stories to offer, recounting how she met Vilanch in the ‘70s while she was working a Chicago nightclub. (Super 8 footage of her stage-act from the time makes it look like an art-form from another galaxy.) And despite his abrasive mugging, Williams scores what might be the movie’s biggest laugh, a demented, explosively funny riff on what The X-Files would be like if Scully and Mulder were played by Jack Benny and Rochester.

It may be significant that director Andrew J. Kuehn is no director at all in the regular sense of the word – he’s from the marketing side of the business. Kuehn has been credited with realizing the market potential of the modern trailer, so it comes as no surprise that his movie is edited in the herky-jerky rhythms of a coming attraction. (At 72 minutes, Get Bruce! is barely longer than some trailers.) And, like any good ad-man, Kuehn never wearies of looking at celebrities: the 40-odd stars wandering through Get Bruce! make it feel like The Player’s bastard brother.

It is left to Vilanch himself to redeem Get Bruce!, and he gives it his best shot. The film hints that he is more introspective than he appears: he lives alone, and the only person we see him hanging out with who isn’t a professional acquaintance is his foster mother, Hennie. (She’s funnier – a lot funnier – than most working comedians.) Vilanch talks with disarming nonchalance about his past (he makes it all sound like it could have happened to anybody), and he’s outre but not overbearing about his homosexuality. In the movie’s closing minutes, an emotionally sober Vilanch discusses the agony brought on by the "Plague Years," and the sight of him sincerely choking on his survivor’s guilt before a large crowd at an AIDS benefit makes it hard not to respect the man.

If Get Bruce! is something more than a self-indulgent smarmfest, it still fails to transcend its own incestuous atmosphere and become a legitimate documentary. In the hands of its ad-man director, it remains a personalized greeting card.

– Tom Block

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