Winner of the audience award for narrative feature at the recent Slamdance Film Festival, “Punching the Clown” is a modestly amusing, extremely mild sendup of dream chasing, networking and character assassinating on various levels of the L.A. music scene. Henry Phillips has a scruffy charm as a gently snarky satirical folk singer, a character modeled (and named) after himself. But just as he doesn’t get much further than open-mic night here, Phillips’ low-wattage star vehicle isn’t likely to venture far beyond the fest circuit before kicking off a string of cable gigs.
Narrative unfolds mostly as flashbacks triggered by a latenight radio interview, as Phillips recounts his ill-starred efforts to land a recording contract in Los Angeles after years of performing cross-country in comedy clubs, coffee houses and, when worse came to worst, pizza parlors.
Helmer and co-writer Gregori Viens (who profiled Phillips in a 1997 documentary of the same title) alternates between what appear to be live performances by Phillips — who sounds a bit like a tongue-in-cheeky Dan Fogelberg — and scripted episodes that follow the character’s interactions with his underemployed-actor brother (Matt Walker), a motherly agent (Ellen Ratner), an admiring waitress (Audrey Siegel) and a smooth-talking, self-absorbed record company exec (Guilford Adams).
Pic aims at easy targets, but occasionally evidences sharp-eyed accuracy. One comic highlight is a posh Hollywood Hills party where egos run rampant in an interlocking chain of pretensions and put-downs. Later, a sensationalistic writer manufactures a controversy — and destroys a career before it starts — with an interviewing technique that will confirm auds’ worst suspicions about tabloid-style media.
And anyone who’s ever worked as a not-so-glorified flunky for an unreasonably demanding boss will laugh at a scene in which Adams’ image-conscious record-company exec treats a casual inquiry by Phillips as the chance to prove just how whim-of-iron tyrannical he can be with his staffers.
Production values are adequate.