Director: Rick Alverson
Stars: Gregg Turkington, Tye Sheridan
4 (out of 5) Globes
What could a Neil Hamburger movie even be? That is: is there actually a way to drop the (in)famous fake stand-up comic Gregg Turkington has played for 25 years — a decaying Borscht Belt joke-slinger with a moth-worn tux, a head full of combed-over hair strands and one, though sometimes four, cocktails cradled to his chest, billed as “America’s $1 Funnyman” — into a cinematic world without betraying everything that made him special? His main power is on the stage (and occasional albums), where he delights but sometimes confuses and even enrages audiences with beyond crude two-line jokes filed in between epic throat-clearing. In part an attack on conformity and pop culture — many jokes take aim at stars like Britney Spears and eateries like Taco Bell — it would be uncouth to take the inflated “Saturday Night Live” movie route.
One alternative is what happens in “Entertainment.” Like “It’s Pat” or “The Ladies Man,” it takes a character (credited as “The Comedian,” not Neil Hamburger) who functions best in short bursts and places him a heightened real-ish world. But the world he gets is grim and despairing, filled with a dread that becomes increasingly Lynchian. Turkington’s character, as in real life, tours the country from gig to gig. But instead of performing to divided audiences, some of whom get what he’s doing or know him already, he unfailingly deploys offensive yuks (one begins: “Why do rapists avoid eating at T.G.I. Friday’s?”) to crickets and dead-eyed stares, sometimes taunts and drink-throwing. In between he retires to fleabag motels, sits around looking depressed and leaves voicemails to an estranged daughter that will never be returned.
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In other words, it’s a sad drama, which is itself a joke. It’s also a slow, downer mood piece, which is another joke. Director Rick Alverson also mixed contradictory genres with “The Comedy,” which found another alternative comic, Tim Heidecker, trying out his own form of aggressive comedy in the vein of a dramatic, realistic world. Alverson goes even further with Turkignton’s Comedian, crafting an art film of Akermanesque long static takes where nothing happens, or having him stand still in otherwise empty frames. When he meets people — like a moneyed cousin (John C. Reilly) who wants to help soften him for a better sell, or his young rival: a kid (Tye Sheridan) who does a mute clown routine of bouncing red balls and mimicking sex acts — he tends to stand in place, barely responding. Eventually things turn weird, then nasty, including a leftfield scene that calls to mind the most notorious bit in Andrzej Zulawski’s “Possession.”
Every shot goes on several beats too long, as if finding a cinematic equivalent of Hamburger’s love of leaving gobs of dead air between jokes. The slowness gives us plenty of time to work through the ideas brought up by Hamburger/The Comedian’s very existence. We’re invited to take a patently ridiculous character seriously, to wonder what happens after he — and even what the actually well-adjusted and talkative Turkington — leaves a venue. We’re nudged, via Reilly’s character, to wonder about entertainment as a business, and whether success is dictated by money acquired or, less sexily, how many people an artist connects with. And we’re asked to see Hamburger/The Comedian as a true, uncompromising artist, who not only won’t sell out but won’t budge from what he sees as his shtick, even as he maintains, in the face of heckling and threats, that all he’s trying to do is bring laughs to “the people,” even if no one onscreen is laughing. He's anybody who's worked tirelessly but not made it in any verifiable way. Hell, he's any Internet troll haunting comments sections. It’s an existential howl into the indifference of man and the universe. It's just a quiet one, whose loudest noise is its star’s disgusting in-between-joke mouth noises.
Follow Matt Prigge on Twitter @mattprigge