LFF 2015: Entertainment

by Ben Diamond

Entertainment (Alverson 2015, 110m)

When is a film not funny?  When its subject is a stand-up comedian.

Entertainment seems to owe a debt to Miloš Forman’s Man on the Moon, both looking at the business of comedy.  But whereas there is some sort of prankish genius at work in the Andy Kaufman construct in the latter, it soon becomes apparent in Entertainment that there’s absolutely nothing funny whatsoever about its main character (played by Gregg Turkington, simply ‘The Comedian’ in the credits), who drives alone through the desert, performing terrible and offensive jokes to the few nonplussed stragglers in each new bar he reaches.  I was reminded of Stewart Lee’s brilliant book How I Escaped My Certain Fate, about his years toiling on the road, playing upstairs at pubs, misunderstood and underappreciated.  But at least in his book there is eventual redemption (success), and the confirmation that Lee really does possess some sort of comic genius that is just too sophisticated for the masses.  Here, although I desperately wanted some sort of an equivalent to a wink from Turkington, letting the film audience in on the joke, there was none.  Instead, there is just a slow-burn realisation that this lone figure is doomed to perform piss-poor comedy (if it can even be called that) for the rest of his life.  That he turns nasty when his audiences lose interest in the performances belies a lack of self-awareness, and gives the whole piece a razor-sharp edge.

The Comedian’s deranged onstage performances differ completely from his quiet demeanour offstage.  The set-up to his jokes often start with a pained and drawn-out “Whyyyyyy?”, almost as if he has been forced onstage against his own will as some Inferno-style punishment, questioning his own torment.  In his hotel rooms between gigs, he phones his wife and speaks to his daughter.  “Hello sweetie,” we often hear him say.  After a while one wonders if this family even exist.  It’s strange to watch a comedian at work and failing miserably.  It’s not as if he’s a misunderstood genuis – he’s just not funny.  And it’s not funny watching him fail, either.  And therein likes the horror.  This is a film so bleak, the comedy so pitch-black you can’t even see it, that when the credits roll you just close your eyes and take deep breaths until the house lights come up again.

The things The Comedian encounters as the film goes on become more and more surreal, extreme metaphors for his alienation and descent into madness.  Michael Cera, in an inspired piece of casting, completely against type, plays a desperate driver at a gas station with a buzz cut.  The effect is disorientating.  At one point The Comedian witnesses a woman giving bith by herself on the floor of a truck stop bathroom.  All his performances are mirrored by his support act, a young man who puts on makeup and clowns around silently, jumping on tables and pretending to masturbate, defecating in his own hat.  It’s a great and innocent (if equally shit) comedic counterpoint to Turkington’s abhorrent nastiness onstage.  The film is full of slow-burn moments of absolute existential horror.  I thought it was wonderful.

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