Despite its title, Punchline is not a comedy. It’s an uneven melodrama where Tom Hanks exhibits flashes of brilliance as a caustically tongued stand-up comic in a strange, undefinable romance with protege Sally Field. Hanks is the real reason to see the film and those who enjoyed watching him in Big will find a different, more realized comedian.
Punchline opens up the unfunny backstage world of stand-up comics by zeroing in on the lives and motivations of two very different people – Hanks as Steven Gold, a failing medical student who derives his humor from his experiences with cadavers and other things, and Field as Lilah, a Jersey housefrau and achingly bad novice comic with an unfulfilled desire to make people laugh.
Writer-director David Seltzer has tapped into one of the more intriguing subcultures of the entertainment world, here a place called the Gas Station in Manhattan where club owner Romeo (Mark Rydell) gives almost anyone a break.
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There’s a dark side to Hanks’ character, which makes his time on stage more than superficially entertaining. Field supposedly brings out his soft side, playing the most unlikely of romantic interests – a styleless 40ish mom of two kids. How she manages to escape her claustrophobic existence playing wife to a traditionally minded insurance salesman husband (John Goodman) to try her schtick with the other wannabes is never quite believable.
The production overall manages to keep its audience off-center with surprisingly unpredictable moments – notably when Rydell is on the scene trying to keep things or his comics together.