Sundance Film Review: ‘Entertainment’

Entertainment Sundance

The world's worst standup comic journeys to the end of a soulless void in Rick Alverson's weird, unsettling, darkly funny follow-up to 'The Comedy.'

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.

Sundance Film Review: 'Entertainment'

Reviewed at Cinetic Media, New York, Jan. 17, 2015. (In Sundance Film Festival — Next; also in New Directors/New Films.) Running time: 102 MIN.

Production

​A ​Jagjaguwar​/​Nomadic Indpendence​/​Made Bed Production​ ​in association with​ ​Arts + Labor​, ​Autumn Productions​, ​Epic Pictures Group​, ​Complex Corporation​. (International sales: Epic Pictures, Hollywood.) Produced by Ryan Zacarias, Ryan Lough, George Rush, Brooke Bernard, Rick Alverson, Patrick Hibler, Alex Lipschultz. Executive producers, Chris Swanson, Ben Swanson, Darius Van Arman,  Jonathan Cargill, Pindar Van Arman, Jack Black, Priyanka Mattoo, Patrick Ewald, Shaked Berenson, Champ Bennett, Russell Armand, Omar Elsayed, Armando Montelongo, David J. Phillips, Walter S. Hall, Henry Rosenthal, Larry Fessenden, Johnny Mac, David Hansen, Andrew Logan. Co-producers, Shannon Houchins, Potsy Ponciroli. Co-executive producers, Bryan Ramirez, A.J. Trauth.

Crew

Directed by Rick Alverson. Screenplay, Alverson, Gregg Turkington, Tim Heidecker. Camera (color, widescreen), Lorenzo Hagerman; editors, Michael Taylor,  Rick Alverson; music, Robert Donne; music supervisor, Chris Swanson; production designer, Bart Mangrum; art director, Lauren Hrehovcik; costume designer, Elizabeth Warn; sound, Pete Townsend; sound designer, Gene Park; supervising sound editors, Danny Meltzer, Scott Hirsch; re-recording mixer, Gene Park; visual effects supervisor, Kirby Conn; assistant director, Alex Lipschultz; casting, Sig De Miguel, Stephen Vincent.

With

Gregg Turkington, Annabella Lwin, Tye Sheridan, John C. Reilly, Mike Hickey, Lawrence Michael Levine, Craig Holland, Juventino Martin, Sergio Estrada, Susan Cernas, Kevin Guthrie, Fabien Euresti, Sr., Tonantzin Carmelo, Juan Cueto, Lotte Verbeek, Amy Seimetz, Michael Cera, David Yow, Dustin Guy Defa, Natalie Contreras, Ashley Atwood, Jeffrey Jensen, Tim Heidecker, Dean Stockwell, Sergio Rafael, Joe Sachem.

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  1. Horatio says:

    This film is a great interpretation of those who cannot help but find solace and despair in the void of nothingness, The Comedian will never understand the world, and the world will never understand him.

  2. Nicole & Stan says:

    We hated this drama. A non-stop exercise in pretentious filmmaking, desperate to say something but not saying anything at all. Someone else commented here that the director is simply trapping/torturing the audience and that’s about right. It’s too bad, too, had high hopes for this one.

  3. Damien McCormick says:

    Wow… I’m truly surprised at the negative comments here. The film didn’t “go anywhere” – it was “painful”. I agree – it was both of those. Yet, and likely because of, it was a very worthwhile piece.

    The tempo of the film seemed to consist of multiple layers that simultaneously pulled my attention at differing speeds and tugged at strongly contrasting emotions. Admittedly, I went into the film knowing and liking who Gregg Turkington is as a personality, and by extension, his alter ego. Perhaps this biased me. Or perhaps, the very feelings this helped to bring out is why Alverson used Turkington for this role.

    In any case I am, at least, confused as to how anyone would call this movie atrocious. Perhaps there’s a certain pretentiousness that I’m missing the root of, or some sort of “Sundance Snobbishness” that I’m not used to. Whatever the case is, I’d strongly recommend that whomever found this film to be less than, at least, better than average, take a re-watch with a venue change. Clear your mind and watch the film, not for it to “go somewhere”, but for the disconnected feeling that it seems you may in fact be shying away from. What you’re running from is precisely what the film’s strength is – but perhaps, with the white noise in your life, you missed this.

  4. Jan wilke says:

    Your review was more entertaining than Entertainment. Arty fail.

  5. Andre S says:

    You guys are absolutely nuts. This movie is gut-wrenchingly painful and awful. At our screening the director referred to it as a ‘trap.’ He basically enjoys torturing the audience. Truly atrocious.

  6. Rachel Lilly says:

    Gosh Daniel, sour grapes much? Did your film at Sundance tank or something? No last name + typical anonymous message board vitriol… I think I’ll trust Variety’s reviewer over you. The film sounds really interesting to me.

    • Daniel says:

      Ha. that’s funny, Rachel. No, I’m not in the film industry unless you count sending $1,000 to a friend who’s making a great-sounding documentary for release some time in, oh, hopefully 2015. I actually went out to Park City to do some skiing while all you PIBs were glad-handing each other and paid for my tickets to get in a few movies at night after the lifts had closed and the party scene had gotten going. So, no no sour grapes, just an honest review from someone who goes to the movies and pays for his tickets. Want to trust the Variety reviewer, be my guest, but you guys are the industry insiders, not me. Just trying to give an honest perspective from the viewpoint of a disappointed consumer.

  7. Daniel says:

    You have got to be kidding. I attended a screening of “Entertainment” Monday night at Sundance and the only thing that kept me in my seat was a chance to hear the director in a talk-back convince me that this wasn’t just an under-grad film school mid-term project deserving at best a C- grade. Incredibly, Alverson was one of the most inarticulate people I’ve ever heard try to describe a project he theoretically worked long and hard at. And, the man is not even smart, saying he hates metaphors and yet saying his movie was full of tropes that he wanted to parody or criticize or generally stick a middle-finger at. Note to Alverson: Look up the definition of trope. Seriously, if I had seen this in a film class I’d have written it off as the work of a depressed and angry teenager. What a waste of time and money.

    • Half Asleep says:

      Completely agree!! I had a hard time staying awake through scene after repetitive scene of a man “feeling depressed”. Alverson bragged that this was his longest script he had ever written, a whopping 46 pages… you wrote a first act genius!! The entire film went nowhere. It was as if someone took what could have been a 10 minute short film and stretched it out for an hour and a half of grueling boredom. Thank GOD for John C, he at least sang a funny song that was like a jolt to my comatose brain only to fall immediately back into a slumber in my cramped seat. The ONLY thing that got me through the film was to stop paying attention and start pretending the characters were Zombies. This was simple and actually made me laugh since they walk and act like zombies (minus the blood) throughout the entire waste of programming at the festival. The thing that really irritates me is that the programmers at Sundance decided this was worth watching. How many great films didn’t get in because Alverson “is buddies” with the programmers. Oh and no I didn’t try to enter a film in the festival.

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