Featuring an unusually strong script for an improv-based indie, “Crying With Laughter” fashions a harrowing reunion between a comedian and his old boarding-school chum into one of Scotland’s most uncomfortable standup routines. A showcase for star Stephen McCole and first-time helmer Justin Molotnikov, this scrappy thriller works its limited resources to give the material an edgy, unpredictable quality, as reflected in the handheld camerawork, seedy sets and unmannered performances — not exactly assets for the style-driven genre, but hardly liabilities in scoring future work. “Crying” came and went on the fest circuit, leaving little demand for FilmBuff’s on-demand domestic release.
Like “The King of Comedy” and other tears-of-a-clown character studies, pic takes a cynical view of the standup profession, presenting its crude protag as a miserable broken soul, self-medicating his inner sadness through alcohol and cocaine. Long ago, forward-looking and otherwise carefree Joey Frisk (McCole) discovered comedy could be a defensive mechanism, and these days, he uses it to hurl insults at a dive-bar audience and complain about fate’s cruel tricks.
Frank Archer (Malcolm Shields) is Frisk’s opposite — deadly serious and stuck dwelling in the past. When he resurfaces in Frisk’s life, claiming to be a friend from their borstal days, you can just tell the guy has an agenda. Frisk doesn’t pay Archer much mind. He’s good for a punchline in the comic’s next monologue, which Frisk spins fresh every night (however implausible, considering the way real comics rehearse).
Still, life offers him no shortage of material, between his disapproving ex-wife, his 6-year-old daughter and the landlord who’s constantly breathing down his neck — and now, this wound-up psycho intent on unpacking Frisk’s long-buried personal baggage. Writer-director Molotnikov may not have provided auds with a particularly sympathetic set of characters, but he’s invented an ensemble with enough psychological scars to make things interesting.
These high-strung characters are just fine when talking through their trauma, and key scenes in the script (which Molotnikov developed with his actors, Mike Leigh-style) feel slick enough to function as a pressure-cooker stage play. But in order to make things cinematic, Molotnikov requires Archer to act out, setting in motion an unlikely assault, kidnapping and hostage-taking situation that undermines the film’s strengths.
Since the incidents are presented in retrospect, with Frisk appearing bruised and bloody onstage between flashbacks to recap his unbelievable day (most likely embellishing as he goes), we already know the poor loser makes it out alive. The narration-as-standup device spoils the suspense and isn’t nearly amusing or outrageous enough for most auds.
One can’t help but wish Molotnikov had allowed Frisk and Archer to work things out in a more gentlemanly (or at least less histrionic) way — as the sly old rivals do in Anthony Shaffer’s “Sleuth,” for example. McCole, best known for Scottish TV series “High Times,” is easy to detest and even easier to embrace later on, but he’s awfully difficult to understand, and adding subtitles would have helped.
Tech credits are just good enough, given the slipping standards for handheld, digitally shot films.