A tribute to an underappreciated comedic talent that takes a startling midpoint shift toward much graver material, “Call Me Lucky” is a terrifically engaging surprise. Bobcat Goldthwait’s documentary feature manages to avoid both excessive cronyism and soapboxing as it traverses from a portrait of his professional mentor, influential standup Barry Crimmins, to something that could scarcely be less of a laughing matter. Acclaim is likely to push the pic from the festival circuit into some theatrical play, with cable and other home-format sales a given.
“Call Me Lucky” immediately establishes its subject as a simultaneously nurturing, courageous, intimidating and angry figure who walked away from a degree of national success more than two decades ago. The reasons for that prove very complex. But first, the film focuses on Crimmins’ earlier years as a furiously committed purveyor of comedy — both his own and that of younger hometown acquaintances Goldthwait and Tom Kenny (two among many veteran buzzers interviewed here). He began showcasing them locally as high schoolers, then carried them along to the bigger stomping grounds of Boston. There, Crimmins opened and operated comedy clubs that broke numerous major talents, playing a leading role in the standup boom of the 1980s.
Vintage performance clips reveal the man himself to have been hilarious but challenging by contemporary standards: Where sensations of the day like Sam Kinison and Andrew Dice Clay celebrated the frequently misogynist, homophobic rude ’n’ crude, Crimmins’ higher-minded “political and social satire” was fueled by an acute awareness of injustice. During the Reagan era, his frequently rancorous humor embodied the rage of a ’60s progressive scorned. He didn’t just condemn government policies; he actually performed in Nicaragua and with leftie troubadour Billy Bragg. While we glimpse some high-profile tube appearances, the increasingly testy nature of his stage rants was on a collision course with comedy-audience comfort even before 1992.
That was the year that Crimmins performed a monologue revealing he’d once been a victim of horrific, ongoing abuse. After that disclosure, he seemed irresistibly drawn from entertainment toward full-time advocacy, focusing particularly on exposing the sleazier avenues permitted to flourish by scant regulation/oversight on that then-new public forum, the Internet. (There is particularly vivid footage of him shaming an AOL official at a Senate hearing on child pornography.) Without wanting to spoil what the pic deftly plays out as a series of shocking narrative twists, suffice it to say that “Call Me Lucky” winds up being among the most devastating of numerous 2015 Sundance titles touching on underage sexual exploitation.
Such efforts have hardly gone unacknowledged — among other honors, Crimmins was given a humanitarian award alongside no less than Maya Angelou — yet the subject remains a somewhat tortured figure who now lives in relative seclusion. Goldthwait’s heartfelt film gives him further, more intimate due. The only minor flaw here is a final stretch that features many friends, both famous and everyday, paying personal tribute — all pointed and poignant, but their testimonies just go on too long.
The astute, lively assembly is first-rate down the line, gaining aesthetic diversity from some clever animated bits, and an expansive bigscreen feel from Bradley Stonesifer’s extra-wide-format lensing. Another significant plus is an inventive, playful score by Charlyne Yi, herself better known as a comedian/actress (“Knocked Up,” “Paper Heart,” “House”).