As Jerry on NBC’s “Parks & Recreation,” Jim O’Heir was the butt of every joke, a lumpen Midwesterner who absorbed ridicule with a genial earnestness that only invited more of it. If Jerry had a dark side, the show never saw fit to explore it. The dark indie comedy “Middle Man” again casts O’Heir as a pitiable figure, shifting small towns from the fictional Pawnee, Ind., to Peoria, Ill., but otherwise keeping the “Kick me” sign pinned to his back. It’s a smart strategy for writer-director Ned Crowley to coax O’Heir into discovering a more sinister side of himself and the world, adding an extra dimension to an actor known for playing the same note to hilarious effect. Yet Crowley’s thinly conceived debut feature only has one big joke, and everything around it is either long-winded setup or deflating letdown.
The joke is a winner, granted, but it takes some time to develop. As “Middle Man” opens, Lenny (O’Heir) is burying his mother and sole companion, which swamps him with grief but gives him the opportunity to abandon his job as a CPA and pursue his dream of being a stand-up comedian. Though Lenny has never performed in his life, he pores over cassettes of classic comedy duos like Abbott and Costello and Martin and Lewis and intends to parlay their ancient routines into a prime spot on “The Monty Guy Show” in Las Vegas. En route to Sin City, however, he picks up a hitchhiker by the easy-to-remember name of Hitch (Andrew J. West of “The Walking Dead”), and a series of misfortunes leave them waylaid in the tiny town of Lamb Bone, Nev.
After agreeing to a handshake deal to serve as his manager, Hitch encourages Lenny to try out his material at open-mic night at the local Yuck Stop comedy club. Lenny bombs spectacularly. Later that night his chief heckler gets bludgeoned to death with a tire iron. It’s not clear whether Hitch or Lenny is responsible for the murder, but the experience of killing a man and trying to bury his body makes the next open-mic night a livelier affair for Lenny. And here’s where the joke comes in: By merely describing, in a deadpan tone, everything that happened to him, he’s a comedy sensation. To cite the Fatty Arbuckle quote in the credits, “No price is too high to pay for a good laugh.”
The ironies in “Middle Man” about what it takes to get famous recall Martin Scorsese’s superior “The King of Comedy,” as does Lenny’s utter humorlessness and his affinity for dated material. (“Those jokes are so old they fart dust,” jeers one onlooker.) The film also pays homage to the Faustian bargain that Lenny strikes with Hitch, a devilish figure who sponsors this bloodbath as a means to give him fresh material. Crowley throws in a host of other references, including nods to the most famous passages of “Five Easy Pieces” and “Deliverance,” but they only add to the impression of “Middle Man” as a tacky facsimile. It’s hard to chuckle at Lenny’s sad mimicry of old radio comedy shows when the film itself echoes the past so hollowly.
Crowley has some insight into the comic mind, which often needs to retreat into the deepest regions of the soul to access authentic material. Lenny lacks the capacity for such introspection, so he needs Hitch to manufacture it for him. But the limits of Crowley’s budget — or perhaps the limits of his imagination in how best to use it — reduce Lamb Bone to a handful of underdressed locations, which he then populates with witless supporting players, like a state trooper who does impressions and a local stand-up headliner whose entire routine is misogynist invective. Neither of them is as funny as Lenny on his worst day.
O’Heir was never destined for the breakout career of “Parks & Rec” alums like Chris Pratt and Aziz Ansari, but he carries “Middle Man” as far as it goes by pushing the Jerry type to the brink of derangement. Like Lenny, he’s willing to go to extraordinary lengths for a laugh. The film just doesn’t provide very many of them.