Comedians are neurotically competitive and doing standup for a living can be brutal — with these basic takeaways, “Road Hard” would barely get past the starting gate if viewers had a “Stop me if you’ve heard this one before” option. This feature directing debut for Adam Carolla and frequent writing/producing collaborator Kevin Hench is an amiable, nicely assembled semi-autobiographical fiction that will please the former’s fans. Others, however, will find the onscreen standup underwhelming, and the other seriocomic elements variously unsurprising and underdeveloped in this peek at life on the comedy B-list.
The crowdfunded pic is opening on 11 screens nationwide March 6, simultaneous with VOD launch and scattered one-shot showings accompanied by personal appearances. Carolla’s following, plus other familiar comedy faces in support roles, should ultimately guide “Road” toward decent returns in home formats.
The star is basically playing an alternative-universe version of himself, had he not followed up his peak TV visibility of co-hosting Comedy Central’s “The Man Show” (opposite Jimmy Kimmel) with a very popular podcast (“The Adam Carolla Show”), a couple of bestselling books and innumerable TV guest spots. By contrast, his fictional stand-in, Bruce Madsen, has fallen on moderately hard times, while erstwhile “The Bro Show” co-host Jack Taylor (Jay Mohr) has, like the real-life Kimmel, become a latenight talkshow titan. His own broadcast offers having dried up, Bruce is stuck back on the standup road for the first time in many years in order to support a hostile ex-wife (Illeana Douglas) and college-bound daughter (Cynthy Wu). Awkwardly, he still lives with them — or rather, they live in his L.A. house proper, while he’s converted the garage into a bachelor “guesthouse.”
The endless grind of regional flights, hotel rooms and spotty audiences is wearing him down; Bruce begs his oft-neglectful agent (Larry Miller in a series of fright wigs, just because) to find him something lucrative enough to be able to stay put in Los Angeles. But those jobs aren’t easy to come by for a middle-aged, no-longer-hot commodity. Meanwhile, Sarah (Diane Farr), a woman met on the road, seems to offer something more than the usual drunken one-night stand, though accepting that offer might require he get out of the biz entirely, for good.
This potential long-term relationship is hard to root for as a solution to Bruce’s problems, since Sarah appears sharp-tongued and at arm’s length for considerably longer than a mere first impression. On their second meeting she also uses him to humiliate some disliked coworkers, putting him in a nasty position professionally and otherwise; why he continues to pursue her after that is a mystery. Bruce’s warmer dynamic with his daughter offers contrast but little else — there’s no real insight into their relationship, which seems to exist only to tell the viewer, “Look, he’s actually a fairly nice guy.”
Elsewhere, “Road Hard’s” smartly paced but not particularly eventful progress spends a lot of time with Bruce grousing enviously over the modest successes of some comedian pals (David Alan Grier, Phil Rosenthal), or reluctantly begging favors from other colleagues who’ve really made it (Mohr, Howie Mandel as himself). Despite the expert delivery guaranteed by so many comedians working together, their material here is just mildly amusing.
Worse, these characters are constantly affirming how funny Bruce is, yet the standup we see Carolla frequently do in this barely-altered-ego guise is uninspired at best. It’s not that his jokes about lesbians or deaf people, for instance, are “politically incorrect”; it’s that such gags are no less routinely wheel-spinning than his rants about hotel key cards that won’t scan, or annoying airplane seatmates. He tends to just assume a subject is inherently funny rather than shaping a routine to make it so. Then again, “The Man Show” and Carolla’s other Comedy Central vehicle, “Crank Yankers,” were popular despite writing that was seldom much more inspired. The eight minutes of crowdfunders listed at the end of of “Road Hard” underline that while his particular brand of humor might leave cold, there are plenty of others who evidently find him hilarious.
The middling yuks, episodic narrative and mild showbiz satire (most sitcoms are stupid, TV execs are fatuous know-it-alls, etc.) would all look considerably flatter if the whole package weren’t so well turned. Marten Tedin’s attractive lensing is the most conspicuous way in which “Road Hard” belies its purported $1.5 million budget, with tech and design contributions down the line giving the pic a polish that some major studio comedies many times its cost could do well to emulate.