You probably recognize Gilbert Gottfried’s name (after all, he’s the most famous Gilbert who’s ever lived), and you definitely recognize his voice, but other than his career-defining performance as Iago in “Aladdin,” how much of his work can you remember off the top of your head?
Mileage will vary, of course, but even Gottfried devotees could agree that the guy’s persona has outsized his resumé. That’s not to knock his stand-up comedy or his appearances in the likes of “Beverly Hills Cop II” and “Saved By the Bell: Wedding in Las Vegas,” but rather to say that he’s become an ambient part of our culture, less of a celebrity than the human embodiment of a modern court jester. He’s not a man, but a squint and an aggressive whine; he’s the joke you shouldn’t tell in public, the furniture at a Friar’s Club roast.
The last thing the world needs right now is another portrait about the fraternity of comedians and their hardscrabble existence as America’s schlubbiest road warriors (“Funny People” cast a much longer shadow than most people care to admit), but “Gilbert” rises above the glut thanks to the strength of its subject. Intimately directed by Neil Berkeley (“Harmontown”), this sweet and sensitive film delves inside the inner life of a man who has seldom been accused of having one, offering entertaining — if scattershot — proof that even the most abrasive people should never be defined by their surfaces (note: does not apply to politicians).
Berkeley’s documentary catches Gottfried at an interesting time in his life. He’s 62, 10 years into a marriage that caught him by surprise, and feeling a bit like an intruder in the apartment that he shares with his wife, Dara, and their two young kids. After a career of playing obnoxious creeps, having a healthy relationship and loving children is a bit at odds with his personal brand. Beyond that, such an anchor can put a real strain on someone who still spends most of his time on tour.
We don’t get to hear much of Gottfried’s stand-up material, but Berkeley delights in how cheaply his subject lives between shows. Long stretches of the movie are spent gawking at Gottfried as he poses for selfies outside of a Megabus or rolls his suitcase into the lobby of a Holiday Inn Express. Back home, Dara drags an air-sealed case from beneath their bed to show off her husband’s immense collection of stolen hotel supplies — more than just an eccentric touch, it’s an incredibly succinct way of visualizing the years that Gottfried has spent traveling the country and telling the same jokes. Later, towards the end of a film that often feels as though it’s been structured at random, we learn (or are reminded) why the comedian’s rate has been so sharply reduced since 2011, but Gottfried seems to take it all in stride.
Suspended somewhere between a travelogue and a tribute, “Gilbert” is just as interested in where Gottfried comes from as it is in where he goes. Berkeley doesn’t mine very much from the gallery of talking heads (e.g. Jay Leno) that he uses to certify his subject’s standing in the comedy world — one of them quips that “Every character flaw that doesn’t work in life works as a comedian,” which makes it all the more frustrating that the film is reluctant to explore what that means — but the director’s focus on Gottfried’s family is far more rewarding. In addition to Gottfried’s wife (a perfect match who laughs every time her husband gives her an anniversary card that reads “Go fuck yourself!”), his sisters also emerge as major characters, opening the door to detours about their childhoods and Gilbert’s underlying need to impress his parents.
There’s a necessary honesty to this stuff, and it’s enough to set off the mildly hagiographic feel that flows through some of the movie, enough to make the whole thing not feel like a feature-length excuse for the inflammatory jokes that almost cost Gottfried his career. These scenes help make sense of the film’s shapelessness, convincingly suggesting — if only for a few minutes at a time — that a man whose life contains both “Aladdin” and “The Aristocrats” deserves a documentary that’s similarly hard to pin down. If this jaunty, charming film makes anything clear, it’s that there’s always more to people than you imagine, and usually more to them than you can know.
“Gilbert” premiered in the Spotlight Documentary section of the 2017 Tribeca Film Festival. It is currently seeking U.S. distribution.