The innate hilarity of the acting studio has recently been mined in the excellent HBO series Barry, starring Bill Hader as a jaded assassin who decides to train as an actor. The Kominsky Method (Netflix, from November 16) is less laugh-out-loud and more ache-all-over with its central pairing of Michael Douglas as the titular acting coach and Alan Arkin as his grouchy best friend and agent, Norman, together entering the fifth and final act of life. Episode titles derive from the revered Stanislavski manual An Actor Prepares: “An Actor Avoids”, “An Agent Grieves” and so forth. From “A Prostate Enlarges” you can deduce this is going to be a nuts and bolts view of ageing.
It’s not clear what Sandy Kominsky’s method actually is, and his students look confused too. “The actor is playing God,” he informs them at one point, and later: “Acting is how we explore what it is to be human.” He defuses a racially tense session by announcing, “Inside, we’re all exactly the same.” Young actors competently play trainee actors who aren’t yet much good; Graham Rogers is fun as the dimwit blond Jude.
However the real meat is in the relationship between Sandy and Norman, and the veterans blow everyone else off the screen. Arkin tends to get the best lines, while an unsentimental Douglas exudes a faded glamour. Sandy lists Jessica Lange, Diane Keaton and Faye Dunaway as former mentees and lovers from his glory days. On learning that Sandy goes out with women half his age, Norman kvetches: “Half your age is still an old woman. Do the math.”
Fortunately there’s a mature woman in class for Sandy to date (doesn’t seem quite ethical but there you go). There isn’t much for Nancy Travis as Lisa to do, other than look elegant, supportive and wry. There’s more bounce to Sarah Baker as Mindy Kominsky, capably running an acting studio and a narcissistic father at the same time. These are unshowy roles, perfectly judged. Less biddable are Phoebe, Norman’s wayward, Percocet-stealing daughter and Lisa’s resentful adolescent son.
Beyond the core cast is a planetary system of guest cameos, locked in to Douglas’s gravitational pull. Patti LaBelle delivers a sizzling “Lady Marmalade” at a Hollywood funeral, while Ann-Margret is a deliciously predatory widow at the subsequent wake. Best of all is Danny DeVito, snapping on his latex gloves and talking about rotavating Sandy’s prostate: “It’s a great time to be a urologist!” With advancing years comes disinhibition, signalled by a decidedly earthy humour. Now is your chance to see Douglas shriek as his posterior is probed. Not for real, of course. It’s just acting.
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