Michael Douglas and Alan Arkin Face the Perils of Age in Netflix’s ‘The Kominsky Method’

Netflix’s “The Kominsky Method” plays like a more brutally realistic version of “Curb Your Enthusiasm.” It’s about men growing old in L.A.’s showbiz culture, still sharing laughs and getting into some trouble, but in every corner reminders appear that their golden age is done. Michael Douglas plays one of those roles he has become adept with these days, the scruffy teacher who once came close to greatness. By now this screen legend is so comfortable in these roles he makes the show enjoyable through sheer presence.

Douglas plays Sandy Kominsky, a legendary L.A. acting coach who has worked with some of the greats and spends his days teaching aspiring talents. His advice tends to be pretty brilliant, but as usually happens the students bring simpler, clueless questions about how to express love in a shampoo commercial. Sandy’s best friend is his longtime agent, Norman (Alan Arkin), who is going through a personal trial as his wife is dying of cancer. Sandy’s own problems involve a need for money. But not everything is so gloomy, he soon becomes close to an older student, Lisa (Nancy Travis). Two end up dating but just then, Norman’s wife dies and Sandy finds himself lending support as he continues to explore his own, evolving life (age isn’t treating his prostate well for example). On the sidelines are the other women in these men’s lives, such as Sandy’s calm but caring daughter Mindy (Sarah Baker) and Norman’s own mess of an offspring, Phoebe (Lisa Edelstein).

There isn’t much that is particularly new in “The Kominsky Method,” we’ve been down this road many times before, at times with these same actors in movies like “Wonder Boys.” But because one of the main showrunners is Chuck Lorre, whose credits include “The Big Bang Theory,” it’s genuinely funny and pleasing. Sandy and Norman are another pair of characters exploring how the Hollywood generation that made such a splash in the 1970s are now truly going over the hill. In his classes Kominsky openly reminisces training Sally Field, and when Norman’s wife dies the will explicitly calls for Barbara Streisand to perform (they have to settle for a drag queen). Sandy gets offended when Phoebe walks out in her underwear, Norman tells her to put on some clothes and she laughs, “it’s Sandy, what’s he gonna do?” But his trips to the bathroom are taking longer, and when Mindy tells him to go to the doctor (who is hilariously played by Danny DeVito) she observes he’s hesitant because it might remind him of death.

Anyone who has ever taught or sat through a film or acting class in Los Angeles will get a kick out of the scenes involving Sandy and his students. The writing captures perfectly well that feeling of being confronted by some kid who thinks they’re a brilliant playwrights or performer, desperately assuring you what they wrote in a day is a masterpiece. In one hilarious scene a student presents her play about incest before the class. Sandy can only compliment her for at least trying to craft original material.

The cast in “The Kominsky Method” has a nice chemistry that makes the show very watchable. Nancy Travis as Lisa plays a great, blunt presence who knows Sandy may be acting to hide his true feelings. Another show would pair Douglas’s character with a woman 30 years younger, under the guise of helping him rediscover his past self. But here there’s no room for illusions about recovering the past. What Sandy and Norman have to do is what we all must, move forward with what we have.  This is not a cynical show however. Everyone eventually reveals some kind of necessary empathy, even pill-popping Phoebe, who is a mess but does truly love her dad. Arkin is a fantastic combination of stress and wisdom in his performance.

“The Kominsky Method” has a few storylines but is more of a series of moments. We are meant to observe these characters as they live. The comedy goes hand in hand with some moments of genuine sentimental power. Norman has some memorable scenes dealing with the loss of his wife, finding himself alone in the house in that first, terrible night without her, and then breaking down at the local dry cleaner’s when he finds a dress of hers that was never picked up. With Douglas we are again with a man made a little jaded by time, but who is willing to soften up when someone else genuinely shows affection. His Sandy also becomes a funny example of how even in the world of acting the older talents can get disconnected (he has no idea who Ludacris is). He is a talent now watching the world slowly slip away.

“The Kominsky Method” is worth watching for the talents involved. Cameos abound from such notables as Ann-Margaret and Susan Sullivan. Everyone seems to be having a comfortable, smooth time bringing these personas to life. Maybe that’s the point, that experience counts and even old dogs are always capable of new tricks.

The Kominsky Method” season one premieres Nov. 16 on Netflix.