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Punching the Clown

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.

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.

Punching the Clown

  • Production: A Viens Films production. Produced by Gregori Viens, Henry Phillips. Co-producers, David Klein, Eric Klein, Tyrone Trulllinger. Directed by Gregori Viens. Screenplay, Viens, Henry Phillips.
  • Crew: Camera (color), Ian Campbell; editor, Viens; music, Phillips; production designers, Azra Bano Ali, Barclay Wright, Tim Harmston; sound, Andy Theiss, Jared Simmons; assistant director, Michael Breines. Reviewed on DVD, Houston, Jan. 27, 2009. (In Slamdance Film Festival -- competing.) Running time: 89 MIN.
  • With: <b>With:</b> Henry Phillips, Ellen Ratner, Wade Kelley, Matt Walker, Guilford Adams, Audrey Siegel, Mik Scriba, Evan Arnold.
  • Music By: