Actor Kevin Pollak lines up the stars for his directorial debut, “Misery Loves Comedy,” a documentary exploration that cuts loose without ever cutting deep. While Pollak poses some provocative questions behind the camera — including the inquiry that inspires the title, “Do you have to be miserable to be funny?” — his parade of celebrity talking heads only skim the surface of the comedic mind. Packing far more laughs than your average doc, the Tribeca Film acquisition could generate limited theatrical interest but seems a more logical fit for premium cable or digital outlets.
The opportunity to collect amusing anecdotes from the likes of Christopher Guest, Larry David, Martin Short, Steve Coogan and Tom Hanks is as good as any reason to make a film, but Pollak positions this project as if he’s up to something more. “Do you think emotionally questionable people are drawn to standup/performing?” Guest reads aloud from Pollak’s question list in the opening montage. It’s one query among many that “Misery Loves Comedy” flirts with without ever quite answering, or even exploring in a substantial fashion.
Lining up well-known comedians to riff on tragedy as the basis for comedy is a sharp idea, and a documentary doesn’t need to become a full-fledged therapy session to tease out the connective tissues. But Pollak proves too distracted by his subjects, or perhaps too inclusive on the invite list, to hone in on a meaningful thesis.
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Some of the subjects are clearly willing to take the plunge: Nick Swardson talks frankly about entering rehab as a teenager, Maria Bamford touchingly explains the relief at letting go of the shame over spending time in a psychiatric facility, and Short spins a rueful and witty tale of suffering a minor nervous breakdown over the success of a peer (Bill Murray, if you’re into name-checking, as Pollak seems to be).
The subject of addiction comes up time and again, but feels weirdly skewed toward the concept of performance as its own addiction. It’s symbolic of the film overall that current “Tonight Show” host Jimmy Fallon spends the most time discussing the highs of making people laugh, without ever saying anything to dispel his happy-go-lucky image.
Ultimately, the pic’s biggest selling point — all these famous faces, perfect to list en masse on a poster or VOD cast list — also works against it. There’s a haphazard quality to who turns up (Sam Rockwell and William H. Macy are fine actors, but really? And why Jason Reitman exactly?), and a frustrating inconsistency to the quality of the conversations. Freddie Prinze Jr. is open and honest about the suicide of his actor-comedian father, but since he was barely a year old at the time and went down a different path himself, he’s a questionable spokesman for the dark side of comedians.
Some participants are barely onscreen (Lisa Kudrow, Whoopi Goldberg, Kevin Smith), and others dominate without adding much in the way of insight. While tech credits are generally pro, the interview with David appears to have been captured on the fly via a low-definition camera, and included simply for name value.
The more faces that appear, the more difficult it is to ignore that we’re hearing overwhelmingly from white men, adding to the feeling that the film is basically an excuse to hang out with the old boys’ club instead of learning anything revealing about the members. Whatever it might take to get these admittedly very funny people to truly bare their souls, Pollak doesn’t appear to have found it.