King Cohen

3 out of 5

Directed by: Steve Mitchell

I don’t love Larry Cohen. I don’t love his movies; I will fall asleep during It’s Alive and The Stuff almost every time. But will I always watch It’s Alive? Will I always delight in introducing the B-movie open-minded to Cohen? Absolutely. Occupying this weird space between gung-ho bravura and nuance and consistency, a Larco production is a thing that you come to recognize; Cohen patter and themes are there, even when someone else is handling the material.

Steve Mitchell’s ‘King Cohen’ documentary definitely understands that, and, after a while, makes a great case of it. Just watching a handful of Cohen’s notable written / written-directed-produced flicks will likely allow for some amusing, imagined, behind-the-scenes stories – the cadre of quirky actors and guerilla style of the movies, and the way Larry inserts surprising splashes of intelligence into the trashiest camp just suggests the sets must’ve been… something – but if you’ve listened to Larry in interview, or on commentary, you get confirmation of that, even allowing for however the auteur is embellishing his tales. History, and the internet, and blu-ray special editions, have allowed that stuff to be expanded upon with outside opinion, and its all just enhanced the “secret” legacy of this dude who’s had his hands on so many things you may not have realized, while also being at the helm of his share of classics. Oh – that movie and that movie are the same guy? And he also wrote that movie? Yes, Larry did all of that. And because a lot of those names can be associated with eye rolls, King Cohen spends a good chunk of its upfront runtime trying to trot out recognizable faces (J. J. Abrams opens the thing…) and fans to make the case for Larry – that he’s the unsung hero genius guy you should know – and that’s intercut with Larry being Larry, who’s never been shy of talking up his productions.

All of this is fine, but it’s not very interesting or original, either for the already converted or those you’re maybe trying to turn on to the director. I appreciate that this is “groundwork,” and we need to touch on Cohen’s upbringing and whatnot, but Mitchell approaches this stuff in the most mundane, book report-y fashion, doing nothing to shake up the talking head + clips format of a doc, and essentially going through the motions. The coverage further feels like it coasts through some of the opening efforts – Cohen’s TV work – in an attempt to make it all seem more polished and important than it may have been; again, it’s a bit desperate to convince us that he’s a talent.

However, once we get into Cohen as a “triple threat” writer / director / producer, the material just starts to carry things, and we’re swept up; the work speaks for itself, and then is further helped by the actors and crew people who worked on the things. Maybe I just have a more personal connection with the material from this era, but I haven’t seen a large chunk of it – I just think Larry really came into his own, and all of those imagined behind-the-scenes things get puffed up with the reality, which is generally quite impressive and astounding on its own: Larry was a maverick, and found his own way to do his own thing, getting some truly oddball movies out into the public consciousness, as he maintained a strong head for business savvy while also satisfying his never-ending need to create.

Ultimately, and satisfyingly, that’s what comes out of the movie: that behind the perceived schlock, you have a guy who really couldn’t stop doing what he was doing, and accomplished that dream I think most of us have / want of figuring out how to balance making money with working on things that are important to us. When he steps back to solely writing in the last part of his career, it makes sense: it feels like he fought his director battles, and with a Larco style created, step back and enjoy some name recognition that came along with his scripts.

While the opening section is a bit of a mundane grind, and the doc chooses to focus very much so on the movies, and less on personal stuff – which is fine, but obviously makes this more of a fandom thing than a study – King Cohen does get around to its goal of proving why everyone who chuckled at killer ice cream, and has vague memories of that killer baby movie, should be giving this guy’s works some due time in your VHS player.