Director Rick Alverson specializes in making polarizing films that consistently alienate audiences. Depending on whom you ask, his 2012 film “The Comedy” is either an honest depiction of how ironic detachment stunts growth or an all-out offensive assault on the senses masquerading as art. His newest film “Entertainment” is just as divisive as his last, and this time it features the purposefully repellant Neil Hamburger, a stand-up comedian character created by Gregg Turkington. “Entertainment” follows Hamburger as he performs his off-putting routine in a short tour tiny, depressing venues in Southern California. When Turkington plays the Hamburger character to real crowds, the audience is in on the joke (i.e. that he’s supposed to be bad), but in “Entertainment,” Hamburger is performing to people who are not in on the joke. Thus, it’s either crickets or jeers after every “punchline.” But with “Entertainment,” Alverson isn’t out to just make audiences uncomfortable. Instead, he uses the Hamburger character as a vehicle for a mood piece about alienation and existential despair. Taking cues from Wim Wenders and David Lynch, Alverson uses his tools as a director to antagonize the audience only so they can better understand the psychology of an antagonizer. As critics have pointed out, this is a love-it-or-hate-it proposition, but for those who get on its wavelength, it could be one of the most stunning films of the year.
More thoughts from the Criticwire Network:
Jeannette Catsoulis, The New York Times
Capturing a world of flyblown mirrors and sad carpeting, where shirts are washed in motel room sinks, and terrible things happen in public restrooms, Mr. Alverson jacks up the tension with exquisite restraint. Winding scene after scene to a breaking point, he brings our discomfort to a rolling boil, then quietly backs away. Amplified by the stillness of Lorenzo Hagerman’s camera, these moments inspire an apprehension that feels slightly sadistic, as if Mr. Alverson were enjoying his screw-turning a little too much. Even if he were, there’s a strange nobility to this downward odyssey that’s hard to shake off. Read more.
A.A. Dowd, The A.V. Club
Alverson has an eye for the barren grandeur of the Southwest. “Entertainment” is a road movie, and it’s hard not to think of Wim Wenders whenever Turkington is behind the wheel of a car, stopping to sightsee at a shooting location from “Five Easy Pieces” or to study the wreckage of an ancient car crash. But whereas Wenders saw awe and mystery in the American landscape, Alverson detects a mounting dread: There’s plenty of David Lynch, too, in his vision of a ghost-town California, where every dingy motel plays the same nightmarish Mexican soap opera, and the ambient drone of the soundtrack, buzzing like a didgeridoo, hints at a horror creeping just beyond the frame. As if to mark the intersection of these two directorial influences, Alverson casts Dean Stockwell in a wordless cameo, his poolside presence conjuring the ghosts of “Paris, Texas” and “Blue Velvet.” He also makes Michael Cera menacing — no small feat. “Entertainment” is hypnotic and distinctive enough to make you wish it had a few more tricks up its sleeve. The venues get smaller, the phone calls home become more desperate, and the encounters with strangers grow more surreal, but the film never shifts gears; it hits the same note of deadpan despair over and over again, until shock begins to calcify into boredom. “The Comedy” had a clearer sense of purpose; here, Alverson seems to be riffing on little more than the conventional wisdom that comedians are sadsacks at heart, and while the circular repetitiveness of the film’s structure may accurately convey the grind of life on the road, it doesn’t entirely excuse the general tedium that begins to set in. Yet “Entertainment” is too artful in its aggressive alienation tactics to outright dismiss. Like Hamburger himself, the film seems engineered to polarize. But even those left confounded or enraged should know a unique experience when it slaps them, in the comedian’s own parlance, straight across their fool faces. Read more.
Matt Prigge, Metro
Every shot goes on several beats too long, as if finding a cinematic equivalent of Hamburger’s love of leaving gobs of dead air between jokes. The slowness gives us plenty of time to work through the ideas brought up by Hamburger/The Comedian’s very existence. We’re invited to take a patently ridiculous character seriously, to wonder what happens after he — and even what the actually well-adjusted and talkative Turkington — leaves a venue. We’re nudged, via Reilly’s character, to wonder about entertainment as a business, and whether success is dictated by money acquired or, less sexily, how many people an artist connects with. And we’re asked to see Hamburger/The Comedian as a true, uncompromising artist, who not only won’t sell out but won’t budge from what he sees as his shtick, even as he maintains, in the face of heckling and threats, that all he’s trying to do is bring laughs to “the people,” even if no one onscreen is laughing. He’s anybody who’s worked tirelessly but not made it in any verifiable way. Hell, he’s any Internet troll haunting comments sections. It’s an existential howl into the indifference of man and the universe. It’s just a quiet one, whose loudest noise is its star’s disgusting in-between-joke mouth noises. Read more.
Jordan Hoffman, The Guardian
As a vehicle for Turkington, “Entertainment” is quite strong. For those familiar with Neil Hamburger, seeing “behind the character” is a rare treat, reminiscent more of Max Headroom’s jump from chat-show host to scripted drama character than a “Saturday Night Live” spinoff film such as “Wayne’s World.” But as a lonely howl from the center of life’s cruelty, a little bit goes a long way – I’m still not sure if I should be laughing, crying, yawning or walking out of the cinema. Neither, perhaps, are the film-makers. Read more.
David Edelstein, Vulture
Neil is quite a character — he’s unforgettable. But he doesn’t have the stature for tragedy, and Alverson loiters over every scene as if to rub our noses in the inaptness of the title. You can almost hear Kurt Cobain mocking his audience with the cry, “Entertain us!” Except Cobain didn’t punish us with unlistenable songs. “Entertainment” wears its contempt too arrogantly, fulsome in its emptiness. Read more.