Filmmaker Rick Alverson has made some absorbing and intimate indie works. “The Builder” is a terrifically underrated gem, and “New Jerusalem” coaxes another strong lead performance by musician Will Oldham. But it’s Alverson’s provocative and pointed collaborations with comedian Tim Heidecker that have proven to be layered and rich next-level works. The deeply misunderstood “The Comedy” — a hilariously confrontational, but also alarming examination of the age of ironic distance — is an incendiary piece de resistance. But Alverson may have outdone himself with “Entertainment,” an even more abrasive, alienating, and nightmarish masterwork about the cruel futility of connection, performance, and existence.
Comedian Gregg Turkington stars as Neill, essentially playing a loose riff on the actor’s alter ego Neil Hamburger (the world’s worst, most insufferable comedian). An aging, inept stand-up with no discernible talents or skills, he tours the wastelands of the Californian desert with a young mime (Tye Sheridan) who is only slightly less useless at his trade. Estranged from a young daughter we never meet, Neill calls her from gig to gig, leaving lonely, near-pathetic voice-mails about the utterly unremarkable banalities of life on the road.
Every day on the third-rate comedy circuit is an unforgiving slog. Audience antipathy is the norm, and the coarse and vulgar Neill is always just a moment away from receiving a bottle upside the head. The venues are utter dives, the pay is wretched, and the clientele is largely trailer trash scum that Neill hisses contempt at during every show.
Yet Alverson and his co-writers Turkington and Heidecker (who only has a small role this time) — who I hope are contracted to write movies together until the end of time — find amazing, absurd, and twisted humor amid bleak existential despair. Neill’s jokes — often a series of dumb questions aimed at celebrities — drip with acidity. Delivered with shrill toxicity, Neill’s bits are so purposefully bad, there’s a wonderful dementedness to them that’s idiotically funny.
As Neill trudges depressingly from gig to gig there are various supporting players that enliven the narrative. John C. Reilly appears as his faux-supportive, asshole-ish cousin, who isn’t very good at lending a hand, Michael Cera has a brief cameo, and Amy Seimetz shows up for a minute in a hysterically dark scene as trailer trash.
“The Comedy” was already an uphill challenge for most audiences, but “Entertainment” is an endurance test that recalls Vincent Gallo’s “Brown Bunny” (and the response from less receptive audiences may be just as venomous). Alverson’s uncompromisingly arid movie almost acts as a dare: it’s deliberately paced, and its joyless color palette is about as inviting as a urine stain.
But there are bizarrely entrancing riches beyond its perverse sense of humor, and Alverson creates a hyper-controlled space for the audience that’s often off-putting in every sense. Robert Donne’s moody score is haunting, especially during barren and desolate evening sequences in the Californian desert. DP Lorenzo Hagerman doesn’t presume to make any shots pretty to look at, but again, sequences in the coyote-lit twilight have their own lingering beauty. Alverson’s movies always have a choice (and usually obscure) soundtrack, and that much is true here as well (cuts by Bill Moss, Pompeo Stillo & The Companions, The Extensions, Frank Sinatra Jr. all feature).
Uncomfortably deadpan and awkward, Alverson and his creative team delight in squirm-inducing moments. This is not a movie for the faint-hearted casual moviegoer. The discomfort ranges from the amusing to the genuinely painful to watch, but the extremist tendencies go for broke in the nightmarish third act, channeling the spirit of an agitated David Lynch. The already weird and hostile encounters grow revolting and grotesque, but always with thought-provoking contours that are sure to disturb.
As warped and sadistic as “Entertainment” is, its brilliance is in the embrace of humiliation and failure, and the way it forces us to confront and sit with those embarrassing, uneasy feelings. Unwilling to bend in the slightest, “Entertainment,” which features a gloriously angelic ending, plays out like the harsh and cruel joke of life. It’s not God laughing at your plans, it’s the universe cackling at every excuse you’ve made to justify existence. [A-]