Form and content find a just-right match in “Who the Hell Is Bobby Roos?” an entirely improvised DV tale based on the real-life experiences of topliner and co-scripter Roger Kabler. An astonishing impressionist, Kabler’s standup career foundered in the early ’90s, when he began to feel overwhelmed by his subjects. Pic — which won the American Independent Award at the Seattle fest — could click with auds that really care about comedy, although rough format and insider treatment may prove too esoteric for mainstreamers. Should kill on DVD.
Like the title character, Kabler’s star rose along with those of Jerry Seinfeld and Tim Allen. He made frequent appearances on the latenight circuit, including “The Tonight Show With Jay Leno” and “Arsenio,” and even had his own failed network sitcom. Helmer John Feldman skillfully draws on clips to flesh out the more exaggerated journey of Bobby Roos, whose identification with his skittish subjects, particularly Robin Williams and Robert De Niro, borders on the obsessive. He does a pretty mean Richard Dreyfuss, Al Pacino, and Peter Falk, too. But he’s in full “Taxi Driver” mode when Bobby beats the living snot out of a heckler who pushes him too far.
As a flashback-explained result, the restless Roos is blackballed from every comedy club on both coasts, leaving him with enough time to figure out that, while De Niro and company can live without him, he can’t spend even a day without them. Eventually, he tries to freshen his old-school act, including a dead-on Roberto Benigni. (In fact, that’s the manner in which Kabler came scrambling across the seat-backs after pic’s world preem in Seattle.) But the freshening isn’t enough, and the people around Roos start to fear his ego has been altered a smidge too much.
Roos’ condition is further complicated when he meets a woman (Iris Paldiel) who only responds to him as De Niro — when she wakes up next to Robin Williams, she literally tries to throw him out of her apartment.
In a snowbound New England cabin, when not hiding in a cardboard box, Roos starts to embrace whoever he might actually be. And it helps when he gets a kind of a benediction from his father, touchingly played by Kabler’s real dad, who died just after production wrapped.
Feldman, who previously helmed two well-received if virtually unattended features, “Alligator Eyes” and “Dead Funny,” has a flair for the morbidly hilarious. Here, he gives Kabler plenty of rope with which to flail himself but manages to leave viewers unharmed. Acting as his own d.p., helmer went with an unusual technique, using up to a half-dozen video cameras to capture hundreds of improv hours. He then edited that material entirely on his MacIntosh computer, with output far more dynamic than the typical monologue-driven show provides.
Sheila Silver’s tense score, which features pounding piano and probing clarinet among other chamber instruments, helps hold the slivers together, and the overall rhythm is brisker than heavy themes suggest.
Through it all, the sheer craft of Kabler’s transformations — the way he physically becomes other people, as well as sounding exactly like them — remains fascinating, whatever one makes of the story or its slightly forced attempt to reach a happy conclusion. As everyone knows by now, comedy can only end in tears.