Rick Alverson’s surreal provocation “The Comedy” featured a bored, obnoxious Brooklyn hipster played by Tim Heidecker with such extreme discomfort that the entire project felt like a dare. That was kind of the point: Alverson forced viewers to get up close and personal with the trappings of modern day ambivalence. With his follow-up, “Entertainment,” Alverson takes the opposite approach: Rather than being corrupted by privilege, the glum comedian at the center of the new movie is a walking embodiment of failed ambition.
Co-written with Heidecker and Gregg Turkington, Alverson’s sketchy, irreverent drama follows Turkington as an embellished version of the real-life comedian’s onstage persona — the alternately awkward and grotesque Neil Hamburger. A portly figure with a horrific combover and squawking delivery, Hamburger leaves an unsettling impression as he clears his throat, peers out behind oversized glasses and performs a hilariously awful routine. Hamburger’s schtick typically involves a series of awful bad-taste questions (“What’s the difference between Courtney Love and the American flag?” “Why don’t rapists eat at TGI Fridays?”) followed by matter-of-fact punchlines more disturbing than funny—suggesting that they aren’t really jokes at all, but some twisted attempt at living out a narcissistic fantasy onstage. But, hey, that’s entertainment, right?
Alverson sees that possibility through to its logical conclusion, by portraying Hamburger as a lonely, middle-aged figure wandering through drab routines in the middle of the Las Vegas desert. Like Heidecker in “The Comedy,” he’s a paradoxical man at once hilarious and profoundly sad. When not attempting to reconnect with his estranged daughter through unanswered phone calls, Hamburger performs his routine to alternately bemused, annoyed and disinterested crowds, occasionally confronting hecklers (as Turkington has famously done countless times) with cringe-worthy results. Alverson’s story unfolds largely through ironic juxtapositions: At the microphone, Hamburger is an angry, combustible presence; elsewhere, he’s a soft-spoken, withered shell of a man. It’s unclear which mode comes closest to epitomizing his true identity, because Hamburger himself is adrift in the dueling states.
Alverson emphasizes his anti-hero’s plight by capturing him in the midst of expansive desert imagery (shot by cinematographer Lorenzo Hagerman, whose previous credits include the far bleaker but visually related Mexican crime drama “Heli”) and shadowy interiors. With time, these spaces blur together into a glum cycle. At times, the vignette-like narrative struggles from a redundant quality, but that same factor enhances the frustrations at the center of Hamburger’s life. In an early scene, we see him performing for a group of prisoners after his opening act, a plucky clown (Tye Sheridan). The pair and their setting wouldn’t look out of place in a Fellini movie, though Alverson’s narrative has a darker edge. The incarcerated audience is oddly more supportive of Hamburger than others, maybe because they can relate to his isolated state.
Hamburger’s insecurities regularly lead him into threatening encounters. Amy Seimetz surfaces as an angry woman who lashes out when he crudely mocks her during an under-attended barroom gig; Michael Cera surfaces for a bit part in a creepy bathroom showdown that suggests Hamburger has lost touch with reality. A more nightmarish encounter in the same stall later on takes a page from “Eraserhead” in its implication that Hamburger can no longer dodge the nightmares that define his daily existence. It’s here that “Entertainment” flies off the rails, heaping weirdness into material that more or less works on the basis of its fascinating lead. But he’s a terrific focal point for the grim storyline. Only John C. Reilly, as Hamburger’s supportive cousin, offers a modicum of support for the downbeat character—but to no productive end. The comedian seemingly thrives on bad vibes.
While “Entertainment” lacks the focused critique of “The Comedy,” it nevertheless offers a fascinating look at the tension between personal aspirations and the harsh realities holding them back. Turkington’s performance, both terrifying and absurd, gets to the essence of a fascinating concept that defies the limitations of his bawdy routine. Eventually devolving into a mess of sobs and maniacal laughter, his meltdown arrives with the eerie suggestion that the two exclamations aren’t that far apart. He’s hopelessly depressed and self-loathing, but for the same reasons, alive with feeling.
“Entertainment” premiered this weekend at the Sundance Film Festival. It is currently seeking U.S. distribution.