Not everyone found much to laugh about in director Rick Alverson’s 2012 Sundance competition entry “The Comedy,” an extravagantly rude, confrontational and surprisingly poignant study of a dissolute New York slacker waiting to inherit his dying father’s fortune. And not everyone will be entertained by Alverson’s new “Entertainment,” an even darker, weirder odyssey through a soulless American nowhere, with perhaps the world’s most abrasively unfunny insult comic as our guide. But take it or leave it, Alverson’s fourth feature is singular stuff, and it reconfirms the director as one of the truly bold voices in the all-too-homogenous U.S. indie film scene. General audiences will keep a safe distance, but “Entertainment” should have no trouble finding a fervent cult to call its own.
“Entertainment” was conceived as a starring vehicle for the astonishing Gregg Turkington — and, more precisely, for Turkington’s longtime alter ego, Neil Hamburger, a flop-sweating standup comedian with a shrieking nasal whine and a bottomless supply of “what” and “why” jokes (as in “Why don’t rapists eat at T.G.I. Friday’s?” and “What’s the difference between Courtney Love and the American flag?”).
Outfitted in a cheap tuxedo and greasy combover, his throat always thick with phlegm, Hamburger suggests a cross between Andy Kaufman’s desiccated lounge singer Tony Clifton and Mr. Sophistication, the desperate vaudeville MC memorably played by Meade Roberts in John Cassavetes’ “The Killing of a Chinese Bookie,” and his punchlines tend to fall equally flat. Yet, night after night, Hamburger (known in Alverson’s film only as the Comedian) gets painstakingly into character and bares himself to the indifferent crowd. It’s a role Turkington, who’s been developing this character for two decades, wears as snugly as a second skin.
Cassavetes is merely one of Alverson and Turkington’s nods to the independent-minded American cinema of the 1960s and ‘70s, with its many drifter-dropout anti-heroes and their blown-out dreams. “Entertainment” opens with the Comedian touring an airplane graveyard somewhere in the California desert near Bakersfield, where (as a guide conveniently reminds) much of Bob Rafelson’s “Five Easy Pieces” was set. (The desolately beautiful, washed-out desert photography is courtesy of Mexican d.p. Lorenzo Hagerman, who shot “Heli.”) And as “Entertainment” proceeds, it becomes a road movie of sorts that nods in the direction of both “Two-Lane Blacktop” and “Paris, Texas” (complete with Dean Stockwell cameo), as the Comedian makes his gradual way home to Los Angeles, a booking at the birthday party of “a well-known celebrity,” and a hoped-for reunion with his estranged daughter — a daughter we can never quite be sure actually exists.
Mostly, we follow the Comedian as he plays a series of dead-end gigs — in prisons and forlorn watering holes — accompanied by a young clown performer (the excellent Tye Sheridan, from “Mud”) who warms up the audience nightly with his debauched, minimalist pantomime (including simulated masturbation and defecation). Each time the Comedian takes the stage, he seems ever so slightly sadder and more broken inside. Offstage, he drifts through a series of last-chance motels (one of which is hosting a strange lecture on chromatherapy); a brief reunion with his boisterous cousin John (John C. Reilly), who pretends to “get” the Comedian’s jokes; a tense bathroom encounter with a desperate hustler (Michael Cera); and binge viewings of a Mexican telenovela that seems to beckon the Comedian like the transmutational looking glasses through which the characters in David Lynch movies routinely pass.
But there is no such exit, and if “Entertainment” is “about” anything, it’s the frantic screaming of the Comedian’s soul into a deafening void — surely a feeling common to many who have labored to express themselves through art. Alverson (who also co-wrote the 40-page “Entertainment” script together with Turkington and “The Comedy” star Tim Heidecker) expresses himself in a way that will never be to everyone’s liking or earn him a prestigious studio directing assignment. He deals in extremes and likes to jostle: Just when you think you’ve gotten a handle on “Entertainment,” along comes one of the most unsettling childbirth scenes this side of “Eraserhead” — a scene that may be dream, flashback, or waking nightmare.
But Alverson is an original who doesn’t do anything to get a cheap rise out of the audience. Rather, there is a profound sadness and loneliness at the heart of his work — key tenets, as Alverson sees it, of the modern American male ego — and time and again he brings us to feel deeply for the most ostensibly repellent and antisocial of characters. The Comedian may not be the life of the party, but at least he is who he is, unencumbered by false hopes of redemption. It’s the rest of us, “Entertainment” suggests, who are the butt of some grand cosmic joke.