Reviewed By Jay Seaver
Posted 11/03/15 11:20:45

"A bit too ironically named, perhaps."
3 stars (Average)

When people describe independent films as pretentious crap and those who like them as pretentious jerks, they're often referring to things like "Entertainment", and I can't exactly blame them. Even when I don't enjoy a movie, I try not to begrudge the people who do, but this is the sort of movie that had me hating the guy behind me who was laughing hard at aggressively unfunny material because enjoying it seemed to be linked to feeling superior, which isn't quite so satisfying as actual, well, entertainment.

It starts with a pair of entertainers performing in a prison, the first a mime (Tye Sheridan) and the second a comedian (Gregg Turkington) with a slobby, abrasive on-stage persona. The pair are touring tiny, minor venues in the southwest, with the comedian visiting peculiar tourist attractions during the day making sad post-show telephone calls to his daughter, occasionally seeing his cousin John (John C. Reilly), meeting new people, and balancing on-stage meltdowns with potential career opportunities.

Not being familiar with Gregg Turkington's own stand-up work under the name Neil Hamburger, I can't say how much the character in the film matches his stage persona (though named "The Comedian" in the credits, he is referred to as "Neil" by other characters). He's an abrasive character on-stage, with his jokes based almost entirely on anger and disdain from a guy who has been constructed to not have a lot of room to mock others. It's a conceptual parody of a certain flavor of stand-up being played out in front of audiences that would probably rather see the actual thing without irony, and when people don't get it, he feels free to lash out on stage, because that's not actually him being a jerk, but improvising how this character would react.

Turkington (who is a co-writer along with Tim Heidecker and director Rick Alverson) certainly does a fine job of embodying this character, and not just in terms of showing him on stage, understanding the mechanics of comedy but not how to connect with the audience he has. No, he also does fine work in creating the nervous, barely-social man who creates such a character as a release valve, the guy who separates himself from the tour group to wander places that are already abandoned himself and seems paralyzed when he has to share a space with someone. The only real exception to that is when he calls his daughter and leaves a voice mail; those are uncomfortable scenes until you imagine how it would have gone had she answered.

His encounters with other people tend to highlight just how well he doesn't handle the rest of the world. The starkest example involves Michael Cera as a young man he encounters on a rainy night; Cera plays the guy as equally nervous (and perhaps a bit off himself) but wanting to engage compared to Neil's outright panic; it's a memorable couple of minutes. The most time is spent with John C. Reilly as Neil's cousin,and I suspect how one looks at his character is a litmus test for one's opinion of the film. Sure, at first he comes across as not too bright, calling Neil's sets weird and yammering on about his orange groves that don't interest his cousin at all, but after a while, he may start to grow on the viewer. Reilly does play John as sort of a rube who doesn't understand his cousin or what's important to him, and is thus funny for being confidently wrong, but the guy is putting what's important to him out there and trying to be helpful; he's probably healthier than Neil not because he's less intelligent and ignorance is bliss, but because he engages with the world around him. The tragedy of Entertainment is not that Neil is a tortured artist surrounded by doofuses like John who aren't on his level; it's that for all the effort that Neil puts into presenting himself to an audience, he can't interact.

Mulling the movie over a bit more with that in mind as I write, I'm a bit more impressed with it, if this is indeed what Alverson and company were going for (it certainly fits with the empty surroundings beautifully shot by cinematographer Lorenzo Hangrman and the occasional implication that an audience on his level scares him). I still kind of hate the guy behind me who either found the jokes funny or was ready to laugh at the character as pathetic three minutes into the movie. There's a difference between tragedy and black comedy, and I suspect I'd like "Entertainment" more if it didn't seem so willing to laugh at its protagonist rather than cry for him.

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