On Friday nights, IndieWire After Dark takes a feature-length pace to honor fringe cinema in the streaming age.
First, the spoiler-free presentation for an Editors’ Choice Midnight Movie: something weird and wonderful of any film age that deserves our commemoration.
Hence, the spoiler-filled aftermath experienced by the unwitting publisher attacked by this week’s recommendation.
The tone: why Are we entertained by this?
Every Neil Hamburger stand-up set is a passionate rejection of the idea that the guy who tells jokes on stage must somehow endear himself to the audience.
The fictional comedian, played by Gregg Turkington in stand-up comedy and talk shows for over two decades, has built a cult following for meticulously urinating on the art form to which he has dedicated his life. He takes the stage in a 1960s tuxedo that’s the sartorial equivalent of a half-melon stuffed with rancid ricotta. His hair is always sculpted into the shape of a skunk that has been run over by multiple semis. Clutching three gin and tonics under one arm, he clears copious amounts of phlegm from his throat before spitting vile and borderline incoherent jokes like, “Why does ET the Extraterrestrial love the taste of Reese’s Pieces? Because that’s the taste of semen on his planet.
It’s a brilliant act with one flaw: the audience is always laughing. Turkington fans appreciate his depraved subversion of the medium, so his live shows never capture the bleakness that would have transpired had Neil Hamburger sincerely performed his “jokes” for an unsuspecting crowd.
Rick Alverson’s “Entertainment” (2015) corrects this problem by developing Neil Hamburger into a three-dimensional human being: a small-time comedian who has been completely destroyed by his pursuit of fame but remains unwilling (or unable) to change the behaviors that have destroyed him. “Entertainment” is as abrasive and inhospitable as the act that inspired it, never giving audiences a real reason to love The Comedian (as Turkington’s character is credited with). Instead, he lets us marinate in his obnoxiousness as his existential crisis turns into a reflection on the roles that art and entertainment play in our lives. The result is a delightful fusion of alternative comedy and arthouse storytelling that hits particularly hard when watched after midnight.
“Entertainment” is to road trip movies what Neil Hamburger is to stand-up: the key components are all there, but they’ve been torn apart and lifelessly rearranged. The opening shot shows The Comedian boarding a jet — presumably to fly to a concert — only to reveal it to be an abandoned piece of junk in the Mojave Desert that has been turned into a tourist attraction. Like everything else he encounters, it’s a reminder that his life has been a worthless replica of the dream he set out to pursue.
As The Comedian snakes through the desert to play a series of concerts in bars and prisons, his monotonous existence – and tragic personal life – lulls us into the kind of trance a comedian would eventually face after months on the road. At some point it becomes hard to tell if the movie has gotten weirder or if watching it just cracked our brains.
The genius of “Entertainment” lies in Turkington’s unrivaled ability to portray passive-aggressive underdogs who see the world’s refusal to conform to their tastes in pop culture as a universal excuse for why their lives suck. She squints hard enough and you’ll see traces of her “On Cinema at the Cinema” character when it’s bubbling with cabaret that provides inadequate anti-jamming security. If that show’s imaginary Turkington was able to review “Entertainment” (assuming Tim Heidecker actually lets him talk about movies for once), I’m confident he’d give him five bags of popcorn and put some stationery on it to write a suicide Note. —CZ
The consequences: someone has suffered to make it
With actors joining the writers on strike today, it’s fun to consider what Neil Hamburger might be doing in the current situation in Hollywood. The anti-comic’s sickening ability to verbally invade personal space would no doubt aid him in pickets, and I’d personally like to see Neil’s signage outside studio executive offices. (“What’s the difference between AMPTP and the American flag?”)
Still, it’s virtually impossible to imagine the pale-skinned personality bothering to appear on the sidewalks of Los Angeles. The last shot of “Entertainment” — our humourist besieged alone in a hotel room, shivering with as many sobs as laughter, cloaked in the glow of a television showing itself — seems like a more likely scene. Ultimately, The Comedian is stuck. If producers successfully force actors from their homes (like a relationship claimed they were inclined to do so earlier this week), the hotel room would be particularly bleak but suitable.
That’s not to mention Turkington’s true stance on the existential threats facing SAG-AFTRA, of course. But Alverson’s wistful portrayal of Hamburger’s alter ego and his little sliver of the roadside Hollywood machine seems especially timely when artists unite to take on the industry by allowing them their own stage. Like so many before it, “Entertainment” is a film about Hollywood’s notorious bad union with itself: a cyclical codependence between artists and their employers, audiences and executives alike, all too insistent on punishing passion with ache. Only The Comedian won’t go away quietly, whether he likes it or not.
Hamburger is new to me as a character (I’d heard of him maybe once before screening “Entertainment”), but I’m familiar with his kind of acting. Tim Robinson comes to mind as a contemporary golden boy in a long line of comedians specializing in psychological self-immolation, though in the case of the late Chris Farley self-flagellation was more like it. Neil is theatrically more daunting than most; he shouts out to that breastfeeding chunk of Madonna’s dog food. But more than that, ‘Entertainment’ jolted my senses with its juxtaposition of personal sacrifice – Why your daughter does not answer? – and the merciless silence of unappreciated attempts at absurdity.
When John C. Reilly (the legendary John C. Reilly) prompts The Comedian to play one of his jokes over dinner in the desert, the perplexed joker flatly refuses. “I don’t want to do it here,” he says. “Entertainment” is sort of a motivation puzzle that way. The comedian isn’t hungry for every spotlight and his actual mic time gets worse with each stop. I’d be interested in seeing a Neil Hamburger live show in the future, if only to help myself think The Comedian’s angst is over.
I’m as disturbed as anyone by a Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young gang bang joke, but it was Alverson’s tragically detached perspective on this slow death of a dream that I found murderous. The sad clown character offered a recognizable motif in the seriocomic bleach-filled fishbowl that is this character study (remember when the little guy pooped in his hat? What a great break!), but it almost made me feel laughed at coming back at The Comedian, sweaty and in pain.
All artists, except comics in particular, sacrifice something, and nowhere is this more crystallized than in the Midnight Movie sphere. Turkington has done something extraordinary with his career and with Hamburger, creating a singularly human perspective in all the grotesque of him. There’s an imperfect brilliance to “Entertainment” that I’m sure can never be achieved without masochistic lunatics like Neil – let alone teaching AI On the birthing scene, I have nothing to offer. I laughed. -FROM