Why become a stand-up comedian? For most, it is presumably fame, self-gratification, and glory. But what about the comedian who is painfully aware of the fact they most likely will never achieve those things? You know, the ones who aren't so delusional and realize they are propelling themselves into a world that is generally unamused, and into a public that is itself a clamorous organism, volatile and defensive, unpredictable and uninviting. It's this type of comedian, as self-defeating as so many others are delusional, who is the focus of Rick Alverson's "Entertainment," a movie that sits and stares at a mediocre stand-up comedian for 90 minutes and refuses to look away.
Director Rick Alverson's mind is like some sort of rickety assembly line that packages and produces the hyper-modern equivalent of uncomfortable, uncanny human drama. In 2013, Alverson released "The Comedy." Using the talents Tim Heidecker of "Tim and Eric Awesome Show Great Job" acclaim, he made a movie that not only appealed to a generation of Brooklyn hipsters, but also defined and isolated the sociopathic tendencies that come with surrounding yourself with the callous and superfluously ironic crowd, and how it corrodes the well-being of the individual. If you have the patience for its off-kilter aesthetics and performances, it will make your stomach turn. "Entertainment" takes this discomfort and gives it a little inertia and more cinematic flair. Conflating drama and documentary, it follows the persona of a comic character that has existed since the mid-'90s: Neil Hamburger, the product of comedian Gregg Turkington.
Hamburger is a twisted satire on the mediocre open-mic comedian—greasy, drunk, and crude, always holding a couple of cocktail glasses in the crease of his elbow. In "Entertainment," Turkington, as a variation of his Hamburger persona, takes a road trip around idyllic American nowhere to various open mics in the midwest and what ensues is a horror show of the senses. It's a profile of a man who jumping from one horrific, embarrassing moment to the next and only responding as a solemn voyeur would.
Alverson has a fixation on primary characters that not only lack empathy but are particularly hard to empathize with. Turkington's character is a complex marvel, one that allows us to despise him (constantly egging on hecklers and acting unusually stand-offish toward acquaintances) in one moment and pity him in the next, but it's altogether unconventional and baffling for audiences to feel anything for a man who puts himself out there in front of crowds that clearly don't want to hear him.
Alverson might be the first director to really document this internal conflict that too many comedians or performers face: the desire to continue when the universe does not want you to. And so, "Entertainment" is an epic rumination on vulnerability and how the gap between performance and reality is unbearably bitter and wanton. It's an important film for any amateur comedian or performer, or anybody else who simply wants to see what comes with the acquisition of the ego—the pain that follows and, it seems, the imminent loss of self.
Directed by Rick Alverson, currently available via Amazon, iTunes, and On Demand.