Eddie Pepitone is a comedian of dualisms. At 52, he’s the next big thing. He’s a meditating vegan with rage issues. He enjoys swearing at LA drivers as much as he likes to feed squirrels in the park. This duality of character is what Steven Feinartz‘s documentary “The Bitter Buddha” (the title an oxymoron itself) attempts to convey about Pepitone, a man who is as delightful as he is loud, as incongruous as he is familiar, as buddha-like in nature and stature as he isn’t.
Pepitone is a stand up comedian in LA, a comic’s comic, as the slew of comedians interviewed attest to in our introduction to the man (testimony is given by Patton Oswalt, Zach Galifianakis, Jen Kirkman, B.J. Novak, Paul Provenza, Dana Gould, Scott Aukerman, Andy Kindler, Sarah Silverman, and more). And yet, he’s still under the radar, still trying for that big break. His signature scream belies his ennui and frustration with life itself, and one gets the sense that screaming into a mic is one of the only things that helps to keep him sane (he alludes to this himself).
That primal scream is derived from many things: a rough childhood, struggles in the industry, the unbearable weight of life itself. It’s a scream all too many can relate to, and because Pepitone is so honest about it, he has a magnetic force about him. He’s extremely self-aware while also heartrendingly raw about everything from his own personal existential angst to larger political and social issues. He goes “there” but isn’t offensive; he’s too smart to rely on cheap laughs from that kind of insult.
The film relies heavily on the quirky acid charm of Pepitone — there’s not much else going on except for him. It’s a swiftly and smoothly edited piece of snippets from Eddie’s life: bits onstage, hiking with his girlfriend, cleaning up after his cats. But maybe it was the right instinct in giving the film room to allow Eddie to be Eddie, as some of the funniest and most touching moments come from his one-liners in the car or at home, busying himself with work. He’s as laugh out loud funny in the bits onstage as he is yelling at an LA driver or trying to scan his headshot. One wants more about his past and his journey (it’s briefly alluded to how he got a “late start”) but ultimately, this project is just about this man at this particular moment in time.
Much of what we learn about Eddie comes from his talking about his family and life story with friends, and on podcasts. The filmmakers show us the behind the scenes of that comedy world, and allow the story to unfold through Eddie’s interactions. There are few ironic moments of old friends talking about his wild man days that are intercut with Eddie going about his daily life, just being the sweet and gentle man who’s about to yell the house down at the local comedy club, just because he has to. Also,there are a few animated sequences featuring Eddie and Marc Maron, with audio from Maron’s WTF podcast or WTF live shows, and truth be told, an animated series featuring these two as themselves would be a monster hit (Comedy Central execs, take note).
“The Bitter Buddha” is arranged around the story of him returning home to New York City to headline at Gotham Comedy Club. However, the loose narrative meanders a bit until ramping up to the climax, where finally we get more story conflict– will Eddie sell out his show? Will his dad leave Staten Island to come see him? The filmmakers refrain from cutting into his show at the Gotham, allowing his comedy to play out, and at this moment, we are allowed to see just how brilliant Eddie really is. His comedy is about comedy, it’s about bad auditions, it’s about the career itself, Twitter, hecklers. He leaves the stage and heckles his empty mic stand, developing and unraveling layers upon layers of inner monologues and questioning and doubt, calling himself out, taking his comedy and breaking it completely open, exposing its insides. It’s brave and bold and completely in step with the way that he lives his life completely bare and self-aware.
This is a portrait of an interesting and endearing misanthrope, but someone who we all know lives inside of us. Eddie’s just more willing to put it all out there, to express that existential angst most modern people experience. At the end of the film, Eddie still lives in his world of dualisms: he feels like he’s just starting out, and yet he’s also ready to look back on his legacy of comedy. And then he just laughs, because what else can you do? [B+]
“The Bitter Buddha” opens in NYC on Friday and will be rolling out in major cities throughout March.