Published Nov 12, 2015The Comedian is sad and lonely. Playing a string of unfortunate shows in the sweltering California desert, he performs hacky off-colour jokes in front of apathetic onlookers that hardly know how to react, save for the occasional aggressive heckler. His opener is an awful clown (Tye Sheridan) whose act appears to consist of little more than bouncing a ball and miming masturbation or defecation. Their first audience in the film is a group of prisoners in a jail; for the lowly Comedian, it's pretty much all downhill from there.
The increasingly desperate and unhinged Comedian forms the wounded, festering heart of Rick Alverson's Entertainment, a strange and transfixing examination of one man's persistence in getting up on stages in front of people when everything around him seems to indicate that he should have given it up quite some time ago. He's portrayed by Gregg Turkington, channelling his own sweaty long-time alter ego Neil Hamburger, a cantankerous comic in the tradition of Andy Kaufman's brilliant creation, Tony Clifton, complete with cheap tuxedo and exaggerated comb-over.
If the episodic plot doesn't really go anywhere, consider how much more frustrating that is for the Comedian than us watching him. After one show, he meets up with a cousin (John C. Reilly) he barely recognizes, who is oddly encouraging despite suggesting he should perhaps reconsider his crude onstage style. He kills most of his time between shows, though, going on various guided tours of relics sitting out in the desert, like the airplane graveyard where we first see him. He regularly leaves forlorn messages for a daughter he has vague plans to meet up with soon without ever actually speaking to her.
Then there are those shows. The dumps and dives that will have him seem to get more decrepit and irrelevant as the film moves along, with the half-empty bars eventually devolving into what appear to be small gatherings in halls or even people's homes. He sleeps in depressing interchangeable hotels when he's afforded the luxury, but finds himself crashing on strangers' couches when the owners of the venues simply can't find anywhere else for him to stay. All the while, he's fuelled by the prospect of an upcoming gig in the Hollywood Hills that he assures people will be attended by celebrities.
The film's similar in tone to Alverson's previous effort, The Comedy, a melancholic low-key triumph with a never-better Tim Heidecker as an aimless douchebag who idly spends his time alone on his boat or cavorting with friends while his wealthy father is on his deathbed. It's no surprise to find that Heidecker co-wrote the screenplay this time with Alverson and Turkington, as his idiosyncratic stamp is all over the dark humour and bizarre tangents that are as likely to confound as amuse (like the scene in which Michael Cera not-so-subtly propositions the Comedian in a public bathroom).
Alverson favours a languid pace and long takes that linger on Turkington's face so that you can sense the desperation and dread mounting beneath the surface. It's a slow burn that's about as honest a depiction one can imagine of the unidentifiable emptiness that ceaselessly spurs entertainers to obtain some modicum of gratification and appreciation from strangers. It's the kind of unique film that you may not immediately enjoy as it unfolds, but you're not likely to forget it anytime soon, either.
(Video Service Corp.)