Dramedy Film Review 2015: "Entertainment" (Written, Directed by Rick Alverson, With Greg Turkington, Tye Sheridan, etc)
Greg Turkington may very well be considered the definitive anti-mainstream comic. If you have the propensity to ha-ha and guffaw at the shtick of Amy Schumer, Jerry Seinfeld, Nick Kroll and God forbid Dane Cook, to name a few, he definitely won’t be your cup of tea. On the surface, he looks like that overburdened and nebbish coworker who has just got his teeth kicked in and can’t stop reeling from the pain. Frequently slouched and always shuffling with a misanthropic glower and his spray-gelled mop of greasy looking black hair with a flair for bowties, frilled shirts and black slacks, Turkington and his twenty-year old alter ego Neil Hamburger are quite the stunning sight to behold and experience. Often starting a joke by gargling on the mic and asking, in a variety of pitches and vocal rhythms “Why?” to his ever curious but not so eagerly awaiting audience, Hamburger addresses the room as though he’s targeting one person and never speaking in generalities. His “Why?” jokes often have that barbed-wire skewering quality of horror-core rap that takes aim at deconstructing celebrity culture and the vicious and self-important nature of entertainers and their lapdog audiences. It is only fitting that writer-director Rick Alverson settled on this film’s title as a means to unpack the psychology and misgiven value that entertaining has on our culture. Turkington’s Hamburger persona is enough to leave Jerry Lewis unsettled, too.
The film is shot, edited and sound tracked with an art-house, Wim Wenders style identity that might be familiar to select audiences but highly alien to your average viewer. Sure, the logline/synopses sounds run of the mill enough with it calling to mind more widely seen works like Judd Apatow’s “Funny People”, Martin Scorsese’s “The King Of Comedy”, and even the 2010 documentary of the late Joan Rivers, “Joan Rivers: A Piece Of Work” which closely examined the relationship of her identity to her spectators, her close camaraderie with the fondly remembered Johnny Carson and the miscast light the media scrutinized her for because of her plastic surgery that ultimately outshined her talent in later years. “Entertainment” is also a study in contrasts that not only successfully unearths the complexities of performing and succeeding or failing at it but also what it means to that entertainer and how deeply the seeds of rejection or success impact that person long after they’ve hung up the microphone. Mr. Hamburger wrestles with this throughout the film and it makes his journey all the more compelling and, ultimately, disquieting as he rolls in and out of every conceivable third-rate joint as he barely makes enough to get by. Oh, and did I mention he isn’t a twenty-something? He’s easily pushing 50 and this sobering tour through the Mojave Desert is his one last shot at redeeming his floundering career. He’s more than happy at this point to jump out of a cake at a family house party for a few bucks. While the tone of the movie is sometimes rather unsettled, there is a silver lining there if you decide to look deeper.
If you are familiar with Alverson’s third feature, 2013’s “The Comedy” which starred longtime friend and off-the-cuff comedian and actor Tim Heidecker, you’d certainly notice a good amount of overlap between the two flicks. Interestingly, this film’s alternate title is “The Comedian” and, in a sense, it acts as a spiritual sequel to the former film in terms of its unconventional structure, downtrodden but semi-hopeful antihero and meandering plot devices and situations and overall abstractness. This follow-up is certainly more cohesive and matured from the last, and has a darker edge about it that could qualify it as a road movie classic someday. Honestly, I wouldn’t really even call this a comedy but a psychodrama with comedic elements. The only components of comedy come when our protagonist cuts the cheese in his own dry, obscure way with his awkward gait that leaves those witnessing him scratching their heads, chuckling questionably or being intimidated and wowed by his bold and visceral approach. The film, similarly, will undoubtedly illicit those responses as well.
The supporting cast is a pretty oddball grouping of veteran comic actors and one unique up and comer. John C. Reilly is the most recognizable face you’ll see. The veteran comic actor who is most well-known for his collaborations with Will Ferrell and, lately, dramas and comedy-dramas the likes of Roman Polanski’s “Carnage”, Mark Duplass’s “Cyrus” and Lynn Ramsay’s “We Need To Talk About Kevin”, excels as Hamburger’s cousin who unexpectedly shows up early on to support him. He allows Hamburger to bunk with him since his meager earnings from his gigs are barely enough to afford him a hotel for a night or two. Their bond seems lived in and natural and Reilly’s understated performance but solidly written role makes him charmingly watchable. Michael Cera shows up for one bizarre, brief scene. Hamburger is at a rest stop in between performances and out from behind comes Cera who awkwardly stares him down after he’s just relieved himself in the adjacent stall. He pokes and prods him into needing a place to crash. Cera looks paler than usual, his eyes red from sleep deprivation, drugs or a mixture of both and tries to be as imposing as he can. Of course, because it’s really difficult for someone who looks like a prepubescent teenager forever to appear the least bit powerful, Hamburger tells him off because time is money. These are two commodities which the comic knows he’s short on. His mentality at this point is more reactionary than compassionate because of how many times he’s been burned throughout his career.
Tye Sheridan, as Hamburger’s clown/illusionist sidekick Eddie is definitely the MVP of this film. The film’s early segments portray him as a spotlight stealer and even though he opens up Hamburger’s show when they are on tour together, he gets the most rise out of what should be Hamburger’s audience in the palm of his hand. He pulls out all the stops with his clown nose, top hat, light face paint and assortment of props: tap dancing on tables, juggling, sleight of hand, you name it. He’s just a firecracker whenever he’s on screen. In his quieter scenes, its revealed that he really empathizes with Hamburger’s condition and that he’s one of his few friends at this point. Their bond doesn’t seem forced or tacked on just to add a convenient layer. Sheridan was last seen in the uncompromising Nicolas Cage drama “Joe” and, before that, co-starring alongside Matthew McConaughey in “Mud”. Next he’ll be seen as a young Scott Summers/Cyclops in Bryan Singer’s “X-Men” franchise closer “Apocalypse”. I truly can’t wait to see his star really take off.
If you are in the mood for just any entertainment, should you see “Entertainment”? Absolutely not. This is a film where a particular mood is needed to enjoy it. Frankly, an affinity for the experimental and a wide open mind are integral for any amount of real enjoyment. Otherwise, you may wind up flipping the channel or swapping out a DVD for any one of Adam Sandler’s soul-crushing Happy Madison-produced movies whose only existence is to make you susceptible to cancer. Its best to have no preconceived notions and just jump right in.