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Sundance Review: Kristina Goolsby & Ashley York’s Documentary About Comedy Great Tig Notaro

Sundance Review: Kristina Goolsby & Ashley York's Documentary About Comedy Great Tig Notaro

Tig Notaro is a pretty remarkable person. A long-serving and much-respected comic (the kind often described as a “comedian’s comedian”) she was, until relatively recently, known only among true stand-up nerds, aside from a handful of appearances on “The Sarah Silverman Program,” “Community” and “The Office.

But then, in 2012, Notaro suffered a series of terrible events in her personal life, culminating in an August show at L.A’s Largo that immediately passed into legend: her friend Louis C.K, who was present at the show, tweeted afterwards that “In 27 years doing this, I’ve seen a handful of truly great, masterful standup sets. One was Tig Notaro last night at Largo.” C.K. persuaded Notaro to release the audio from the night on his website as a comedy album, and the result, Live, sold 75,000 copies in a week.

The documentaryTig,” directed by Notaro’s friends Kristina Goolsby and Ashley York, begins with the comic relating her horrible run in 2012: first, she was diagnosed with brutal bacterial bowel disease C.diff, then suffered a break-up, then her mother died suddenly from a fall, and then she discovered she had Stage 2 bi-lateral breast cancer, leading to a double masectomy and hormone-blocking treatment.

These events served as the material for Notaro’s heartbreakingly funny, instantly legendary set immortalized on Live, but the backbone of Goolsby and York’s film is the aftermath of her sudden rise to fame, as the comedian struggles with how to follow up that initial set, as well as attempting to get pregnant through a surrogate (at the risk of causing a return of the cancer), and negotiating a brand-new relationship as well. It’s just a shame that the film never really does its subject justice.

Notaro’s an hugely engaging figure, certainly, and those unfamiliar with her comedy should find themselves warming to her immediately. The film’s easily at its best when it’s just letting Tig be Tig, and even more so, while documenting the quiet, low-key romance between her and actress Stephanie Allynne.

Allynne co-starred with Notaro in Lake Bell’s “In A World,” starting up a friendship that Notaro wanted more from, but Allynne initially wanted to keep it platonic. Their gradual courtship (they’re now engaged) is the focus of much of the latter half of the film, and it’s genuinely heart-warming stuff.

The film otherwise, unfortunately, remains at arms length from Tig: there’s little real depth to its portrait of her, and every time it glances against an area of real interest, it dashes away. It’s a very surface-level film, and it’s unsurprising to discover that directors Goolsby and York have a background in reality television (“Intervention” numbering among the former’s credits), given the film’s vaguely glossy, somewhat phony approach. One montage in particular, of Notaro and Allynne after a break-up of sorts, feels artificial and manipulative to a degree that makes it feel more like a segment from “Real Housewives.” 

The glimpses of its subject’s comedy (much of which is audio-only) are always delightful, but they also hamper the film. Because every time you hear or see Notaro perform, you’re reminded that you’d likely be getting a greater insight into both her work and her personal life by seeing one of her ace routines rather than by sitting through ninety minutes of “Tig.” [C-]

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