Those are the awkward words uttered at the beginning of most of the performances of an insult comic, named The Comedian in the film but based on the on-stage character Neil Hamburger. Interestingly, the first performance of his is the only one where we get any sense of joy attached to his routine–those at the prison fall head over heels for both The Comedian’s brash act (“What’s the difference between Courtney Love and the American Flag? Why can’t rapists eat at T.G.I. Fridays) as well as the clown who opens for him. After this, though the audience at my screening was clearly familiar with Hamburger’s shtick and laughed along, The Comedian’s act becomes a grotesque void of any sort of joy. In fact, The Comedian often goes out of his way to insult members of his fictional audiences, leaving viewers in the cinema to wonder why, in fact, this man has chosen a career which he seems to disdain. To make matters worth, both the expansive, wreckage–the first shot is an airplane graveyard–focused cinematography heightens and reflects the internal sense of isolation of the insult comic. In this sense and more the title is, of course, paradoxical; at no point during this film is anyone actually entertained. The answer to the question of why The Comedian actually partakes in his career, and why he doesn’t take his cousin’s (John C. Reilly) consistent advice to change it into something more marketable that will both fill seats and conjure more laughs from the general public, seems to be that Entertainment truly is a very damning look at personal aspirations gone awry; one has to imagine there is a reason Hamburger got into comedy, but whatever it is that has happened before we are introduced to him, clearly he has failed, playing small, unamused clubs and prisons, and leaving his character a bitter, failed individual both in his personal and professional life. The ugliness of a failed dream resonates throughout this film.
Entertainment also plays with the idea of a “road movie”; for all intents and purposes it is one. The Comedian is on tour by car with an opener, he’s able to visit some sights, and there is a distinct end-goal in mind that should represent the lofty ambitions of the trip fulfilled: a party attended by celebrities in L.A. that, in any other roadtrip, would mark the ultimate redemption of the character. For The Comedian, though, this could not be true as all of these genre motifs are excruciatingly washed out. What makes this play out as so tragic on a narrative level is that, while the Comedian can be better, he is also a very soft spoken person off from the stage. There is a repeated event of The Comedian calling his offspring and leaving messages; as the film progresses these become more and more distraught with less hope of a return call. He often dreams of himself, dressed up like a cowboy, behind bars in a prison, clearly feeling captured by his profession as an ‘entertainer’ and detachment from others. As noted before, other human life barely comes into the frame with The Comedian. What lifts Entertainment from merely being a great, and abrasive portrait of a very ugly life is the surrealist tones it takes in the second half. Things get, for lack of a better word, weird as the film progresses: this begins with the obvious visual motif of colors that are supposed to reflect a certain mood (we are told these moods shortly before they become a thing) to a couple of extremely odd encounters as the film begins to end before the Comedian breaks down. I don’t want to completely spoil things but the Comedian must face both his mortality and then scream into a non-responsive void, understanding the true nature of his isolation. After one viewing, I’m not so certain how much this is supposed to be generalizable to any existence, but it’s very powerful at least as the portrait of this individual.
At this point, I’d like to pull back from an analysis of this part, which I think is a bit unfair before its wide release as it would require me to ruin a fair deal of the third act (this will be a film I revisit) to note something interesting that the director, Rick Alverson, said during the Q&A after the screening. Someone asked him about casting Michael Cera and John C. Reilly in those little roles and he said something to the degree of this: when directors say that they cast big names and people will forget about them, it’s pretty much bullshit. Everyone knows when you cast a big name the spectator is going to recognize them first and foremost as the person, and then as the character. So, by casting characters like those in minor roles in forces the audience to alternatively engross themselves in the fictional world, and then pull back. This got me thinking as to the brilliant way these two characters were used: Reilly was a compassionate figure at the beginning who gave a very withdrawn performance, and when he first emerged the camera lingered on him, despite the fact there was a stand up performance going on with an even more audience around him. Furthermore, Michael Cera’s character really appears during the midst of the film’s darkest, more surreal moments as a very scuzzy character, but we can’t escape thinking, for as brief as he is on the screen, that’s Michael Cera. This really pulls us out of the narrative world and forces us to view (and hopefully, more importantly, analyze) moments in The Comedian’s life at a distance, just like the rest of the diegetic world interacts with his character.
I believe there’s a lot more to say about Entertainment. It’s a very unique and utterly abrasive, uncomfortable film that isn’t lacking in symbolic and thematic virtues at all. It’s a very mean film, when independent films want nothing more than to be accepted. It’s a bold statement that I think we need in 2015. I haven’t stopped thinking about it since my first viewing, and I keep pulling out more and more of its intricacies, although I can’t do those justice in this short of a space.