Entertainment | Movie review by Steve Bennett

Entertainment

Movie review by Steve Bennett

The grim, twisted figure of Neil Hamburger is a favourite of comedy festivals and hip venues; a repulsive man with sour jokes unsmilingly whined out through a fug of phlegm and bitterness.

But how does this work on the road? Playing grim venues that match his grim personality? And what manner of damaged man would subject both himself and his tiny, uninterested audiences to such abject misery night after night?

With its tartly ironic title, Entertainment seeks to explore that. And what emerges is a disconcerting, bold and strange portrait that perfectly matches its subject. The unrelenting ambience is of uncomfortable silence and shots that linger just a little too long on the husks of faces.

Though the character Gregg Turkington plays screen is almost identical to his Neil Hamburger creation: from the threadbare tuxedo to the spit-styled combover, from the drink problem to the brutal jokes, Entertainment is not, technically, a Neil Hamburger movie. The central character is referred to in the credits only as 'The Comedian', as if he's lost his identity.

As he plays to a smattering of bored faces in a succession of dreary backwaters, the odious Comedian unconvincingly urges his audiences: 'Have some fun, that's what it's all about folks, forgetting your problems...' Though it's clear his own problems haunt him. He's had to block them out, so can feel nothing any more.

Driving from one Californian desert town to another – allowing for some beautifully stark cinematography from director Rick Alverson – The Comedian experiences strange and extreme incidents, from a woman giving birth in a restroom to a intense exchange with a strange young man played by Arrested Development's Michael Cera. Although tense, they play out not as huge dramas, but as just more of the deadened background hum that has become the Comedian's life.

After a minor infraction at a gig, he unleashes an vitriolic putdown at the drunk woman responsible. It's not a torrent of abuse but a drip-drip-drip of sadistic unpleasantness, as if his sensitivities have been so deadened he doesn't realise how vile he is being.

'What's this leading to?' asks The Comedian's cousin, played by John C. Reilly of what his so-called 'career' choice. 'Where's the growth potential?' It's nor a question The Comedian can answer. It's a dead end. This life on the road is all he knows, an ineffectual diversion from his loneliness, particularly heightened by the estrangement from his daughter. Those moment holding a mic are all that can stave off a breakdown... and in the end they can only delay the inevitable, not avert it completely.

Comedians in films are often tragic figures, either bitter about their status or hiding person demons behind the clown's mask. The Comedian is tragic in a different way: he has no ambition, his flaws are never concealed on stage. And this is what makes the mesmerising, cultish Entertainment – co-written by Tarkington, Alverson and Tim Heidecker – one of the most strikingly original, tense and challenging films about stand-up yet made. Its images, and its sense of discomfort, will persist like Hamburger's brutal punchlines.

• Entertainment was released on demand on Friday. It can be rented in the UK via FlixFling, priced $6.99 (about £4.60 – or $7.99/£5.30 in high definition).

Review date: 16 Nov 2015
Reviewed by: Steve Bennett

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