What starts out as a sanity-restoring make-work project evolves into a highly entertaining cross-country extravaganza during the course of “Conan O’Brien Can’t Stop,” an up-close account of the former “Tonight Show” host’s two-month, 32-city comedy-and-music variety-show tour shortly after he parted ways with NBC in 2010. But the biggest laughs and most intriguing revelations are provided offstage in this slickly produced documentary, as O’Brien — often pushing himself to the point of exhaustion before, during and after performances — plays for keeps while playing for laughs. Pic could click with diverse auds in various venues and formats through its multi-platform release by Abramorama (theatrical), Magnolia Home Entertainment and AT&T’s U-verse TV service.Helmer Rodman Flender assumes anyone watching his docu must already know the messy details of the story behind the story — for those who tuned in late, he offers only a fleeting recap of Jay Leno’s return and O’Brien’s departure as “Tonight Show” host. Still, the film likely will prove easily accessible even to those who are unfamiliar with O’Brien’s past and current TV projects. Early on, O’Brien frankly admits his bitterness — “Sometimes,” he says without a trace of jokiness, “I’m so angry, I can’t even breathe!” — and strongly suggests that NBC execs aren’t the only ones he holds responsible for his reversal of fortune. (Later in the pic, he sarcastically imagines a telegram message from Leno: “What’s it like to have a soul?”) Worse, he adds, those same execs have contractually barred him from returning to TV for several months after the “Tonight Show” contretemps (though, it must be noted, this in exchange for a hefty contract buyout). And, really, that’s all the uninitiated need know to fully understand O’Brien’s rationale for organizing and headlining “The Legally Prohibited from Being Funny on Television Tour,” the two-month traveling sideshow that begins in Eugene, Ore., and ends in Atlanta, with stops along the way including a glittery Las Vegas showroom, Radio City Music Hall, and an un-air-conditioned tent at Tennessee’s popular Bonnaroo music festival. O’Brien considers the Bonnaroo’s sweltering discomfort and cracks: “In six months, I’ve gone from hosting ‘The Tonight Show’ to performing at a refugee camp.” More often than not, O’Brien appears to be having the time of his life onstage — interacting with longtime sidekick Andy Richter, cutting up with guest stars (including Jim Carry, Stephen Colbert and Jon Stewart), and vigorously and quite capably performing covers of country and rockabilly tunes with his band and two backup singers. He comes off as genuinely surprised — and extremely grateful — that, for the first time in his showbiz career, he says, people actually are paying to see him perform. Offstage, however, O’Brien is hard-pressed to sustain his customary level of comic exuberance as he copes with the demands of autograph- and photo-seeking fans, the unexpected duties that come with certain gigs (at Bonnaroo, he’s expected to introduce various musical acts as well as do his own show) and not-entirely-welcome backstage visits by celebs, well-wishers, and friends and relatives of band and crew members. To be sure, Flender never shows O’Brien flying off the handle too explosively or furiously dressing down an underling. (This being the type of celebratory pic that it is, it’s hard to imagine Flender being allowed to show such behavior even if he had filmed it.) In fact, despite O’Brien’s occasional complaints about being overtaxed or imposed upon, and his very obvious signs of physical and mental exhaustion, the star gives the impression of being someone who, at this particular moment in his life at least, is temperamentally incapable of saying “no” very often. He kvetches, he cracks wise, he self-mockingly comports himself as a prima donna — but, mostly, he goes with the flow. And the audience is left to wonder whether, had O’Brien not landed a new latenight series with TBS, he might not still be on the road. For all its enjoyable hilarity, “Conan O’Brien Can’t Stop” often raises a provocative question: How much must a man do to forget, if only temporarily? Tech values are first-rate, ensuring the pic will impress ticketbuyers as well as homevid viewers and cable subscribers.
A Pariah Prods. production. Produced by Gavin Polone, Rachel Griffin. Executive producer, Kathy Landsberg. Directed, edited by Rodman Flender.
Camera (color, HD), Flender; music supervisor, Paul DiFranco; sound (Dolby Stereo), Michael Clark; associate producer, Ivan Bess. Reviewed at SXSW Film Festival (Headliners), March 13, 2011. Running time: 89 MIN.
Conan O'Brien, Andy Richter, Steve Kroft, Eddie Vedder, Stephen Colbert, Jon Stewart, Jim Carrey, Jack White.