Conan O'Brien Can't Stop

Reviewed By Jay Seaver
Posted 06/24/11 14:00:00

"The show must go on the road."
4 stars (Worth A Look)

SCREENED AT INDEPENDENT FILM FESTIVAL BOSTON 2011: People reading this in the future, or other countries, or who just have a more sensible relationship to pop culture may find this hard to believe, but for a good chunk of 2009 and 2010, a lot of people spent time obsessing over who should make jokes about the events of the day and lob softball questions at celebrities promoting new movies and albums on NBC at 11:35pm, even those not connected with the network. It was a whole thing. That's the background for "Conan O'Brien Can't Stop", an entertaining documentary about a performer who needs a stage in more ways than one.

As mentioned, Conan O'Brien was the host of The Tonight Show until NBC opted to return Jay Leno to the job. He would soon find a new job, but a non-compete clause in his old contract would keep him off television until the fall of 2010. In between, he embarked on his "Legally Prohibited From Being Funny on Television" tour, a hugely successful comedy tour that was in many ways O'Brien's first real direct interaction with a live audience, despite his long tenure hosting late night talk shows.

Conan O'Brien is a funny guy, and since he's putting on a comedy show, he surrounds himself with other funny people. We see plenty of that in both the performance clips and the behind-the-scenes footage - there probably isn't a five-minute period without at least a small laugh. What we also see, though, is that comedy often comes from angry places and can often be a job that requires putting on a false face. O'Brien lets director Rodman Flender show us the man warts and all, giving us a close look at how much baggage he's carrying around from his long, public, losing battle with his former employers and how going on a tour around North America with very little down-time is perhaps not the best way to deal with it.

How warty this portrayal appears may be highly dependent on a given audience member's reaction to the Tonight Show saga, and one of the most clever things Flender does is to at least give the appearance of allowing that ambiguity. Depending on one's prior investment, O'Brien can come off at the start of the movie as either entitled and obnoxious or as a wronged man in need of healing. However one approaches this, the narrative of him throwing himself into this project and both burning it out of his system and reconnecting with his love of performing winds up a good story arc. It may be a bit aggravating for those not actively rooting for "Team Coco" at the time, especially since it can occasionally be unclear just how self-aware O'Brien is when complaining about not being able to be on television, especially when watching him snap at assistant Sona Movsesian. Movsesian actually winds up becoming the most important of the film's secondary subjects, despite more famous names like O'Brien's long-time co-star and sidekick Andy Richter being around; she's the one bearing the brunt of her employer's temper and mood swings, trying to get stuff done.

And there's a lot to get done; one thing that Flender does very well is to just pound away at how exhausting this sort of tour is, visiting this many cities in relatively few days. O'Brien and company look pretty run-down by the end, but it seems that the crew has been a relatively constant presence throughout the tour, so it never feels like we just see bits and pieces or suddenly jump from people being near one end of the excited-to-start/ground-down spectrum to the other; it's an impressively smooth arc.

In a lot of ways, that's standard tour stuff, although the hard feelings being present at the start rather than developing over time is a new wrinkle. As tour movies go, this one works pretty well, although (as is often the case) O'Brien's fans may find themselves more forgiving at the start than the rest of the audience.

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