Entertainment Dir. Rick Alverson

[Magnolia Pictures; 2015]

Styles: black comedy, sad-sack, lowbrow
Others: The Comedy, Louie’s bad moments, Man on the Moon

It’s like that circulating quote misattributed to Robin Williams around the time of his passing:

“It’s the saddest people that always try their hardest to make people happy. Because they know what it’s like to feel absolutely worthless and they don’t want anybody else to feel like that.”

That, and the embedded promulgation of the Pagliacci myth, which in *this reviewer’s* opinion, was more or less laid to rest with the last coupla episodes of Louie. Except this isn’t “Williams’s” altruistic and insipid bastardization or Louis CK’s humanistic absurdity; this is mean-spirited, repellent stuff, like if Marc Maron were interviewing his own mother. The “this” in question is not the comedy of Gregg Turkington aka Neil Hamburger — I love the guy! His comedy/persona is mean-spirited and repellent, but also fine-pointedly stupid. It is the metaphoric ground beef between the twinned buns of heavy-handed reflexivity and insipid club-circuit idiocy, probably topped with the secret sauce of Carrot Top’s cum because that is just how a Neil Hamburger joke functions. A gruesome deconstruction of comedy form, peppered with insults half-heartedly hurled at celebrity. Yucky! It is rather Entertainment at which I take offense, for not abiding by this winning formula. To take the endlessly replicable — the classic setup — and divert the punchline to parodic effect engages in a productively stupid discourse with the established form. And it would have worked in Entertainment! The setup — arthouse conventions — and the perversion — a satiric misdirect of self-seriousness. AND YET AND YET. Entertainment misses its opportunity to beat us to the punchline, instead congratulating its “invention” of and unimaginative use of an already tired theme: kids, if you don’t laugh, you’ll cry!

Entertainment follows Gregg Turkington’s “the Comedian” (no denying archetypal status here!) as he embarks on an unrelentingly miserable tour of the West. Loosely episodic (or more accurately, operating on the unit of non-narrative sequence, separated by scenery and not event), Entertainment does encapsulate the churning terror of itinerant loneliness circling nearer and nearer to carrion desperation. The “subtle” sad-clown of the Comedian finds his foil in his touring partner, an inept jester in grease-paint stubble and drawn-on brows. His ham-fisted material gets all the yuks, while the Comedian’s sad sack schtick on and off stage finds him ever-more severed from his family, fellows, self. We’ve seen again and again the comedian who is sad and lonely, angry and afraid, but perhaps the incisive writing of such insiders as Tim Heidecker, Gregg Turkington, and Rick Alverson could open the wounds afresh? Instead they attack with blunt tools, giving us heavy-handedly expressionistic cinematography instead of interiority. The Comedian’s potential complexities are reduced to the pallid cactus blooms and tableaus of together-alone gatherings that permeate the imagery. With the desert setting, in wide, unnerving symmetrical framing, we get sweeping scenic representationalism instead of delicate character exploration. Those wide expanses that swallow, that frame the lonely man in the void! The cramped, still interiors, fluorescent and oh-so american, that cage the lonely man in himself!

cough cough ** WHAAAAAT ** glurp slurp ** WHAAAAAT ** wheeze ** WHAAAT ** spills drink and causes general discomfort ** does comedy LEGEND, comedy LEGEEEENNNDD Neil Hamburger do in the film that fails him? His best! The Comedian plays terrible night clubs, performing Hamburger’s schtick (good) to audiences ranging from unresponsive to combative, to whom he respond with hissing abuse. Here the film does its best work: in its compartmentalization of the Comedian (and “the Comedian”) into disastrously mutually exclusive parts, the stunted theme of performative identity has some space to unfold. When given the chance to demonstrate what the film so incessantly tries to superimpose in imagery, the Comedian hints that the inner/outer divide is a dangerous dysphoria to be played out in the arena of the acting self. He rarely speaks except on stage, where he boils over in repellent performance. When affronted by one of his audience’s utter disinterest, the lines between crude performer and stifled everyman man blur into a wheezing, hacking snot of a creature. The film’s finest moment is when, so rattled by a pathetic turnout, the Comedian’s violent hatred, inwards and outwards, manifests as about five uninterrupted minutes of mimed fart noises. Finally!

In these rare moments of lowbrow confrontation emerges the glimmer of productive engagement with its own text and with the audience. It is disgusting and dismal to identify with the Comedian, but impossible to look on with the glassy eyes of his audience. Those glorious fart noises alert us to the fun we should be having; that’s entertainment! Forgetting for a moment its insistent oppressive self-seriousness, farting becomes Entertainment. Other forays into the bizarre, however, are less rewarding. The violence and anger hinted at in the Comedian’s performance come to life as instances of none-sequitur and often sexually motivated violence and vileness, that do little towards furthering story, theme, etc, and solidify Entertainment’s arthouse posturing. Like, why is Michael Cera even here?!

I do fear that I am missing the joke — that Entertainment is aware of its own pretensions, that it is winking at/with those who see that, and laughing at those who can’t see the ruse but still think it genuinely artistic — i.e. fulfilling the Hamburger doctrine. But stubborn ol’ (hopefully smart-as-a-whip, too) me is inclined to believe that Entertainment simply fails to see what it could achieve if it toyed with its own pretensions, rather than parading them in clunky showman-ship-less-ness. Its one note is one too often rung, with little tonal variation. It is observational rather than explorative, and hardly comic, in its clumsy tale of the modern Pagliacci. But could it, I ask, at least be funny, or even anti-comedic (!) in so doing? Of course, it is useless to evaluate based on generic expectations I held based on straight-up no evidence, and everyone else liked this (!) but still: a poop joke, please?

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