Entertainment (2015) - Can't Stop the Movies
Can't Stop the Movies

Entertainment (2015)

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The Entertainer entertains.  He slops on oil and sprays water to make his hair a mess of slime and goes out to tell his jokes.  But with each hostile audience comes a new depth of lonely misery for The Entertainer, and there's no telling when or how he may crack.  Rick Alverson directs Entertainment from a screenplay written by Rick Alverson, Tim Heidecker, and Gregg Turkington, and stars Gregg Turkington, Tye Sheridan, and John C. Reilly.

Centered and aloneShortly after Robin Williams died it became common to read appreciation pieces with the phrase, "But doctor...I am Pagliacci."  The phrase's importance in pop culture is important in two ways.  The first is how it stems from the Italian opera of the same name which remains popular with audiences but less so with critics.  The second comes from writer Alan Moore who uses Pagliacci as a way of phrasing how hopeless and uncertain the world of his comic Watchmen is.

Entertainment is not about a comedian though The Entertainer (Gregg Turkington) tells jokes.  It's also not about a clown though The Entertainer's traveling companion Eddie (Tye Sheridan) puts on clown makeup and performs routines on the border of mundane and vulgar.  Instead writer / director Rick Alverson positions The Entertainer as a despairing subject who might wander into a therapists office and repeat the Pagliacci line once more.  It's hard to miss this, because Entertainment is so pulverizing in its approach toward the climactic breakdown it's hard to imagine those in the audience who will miss the point.

I was going to review Alverson's earlier film The Comedy when it premiered in 2012 but it made me so angry I decided it would be better to walk than write.  The Comedy was an exercise in ironic racism and sexism cloaked as a criticism of same which repeated hateful observations so many times it stopped being a commentary on the pampered life of the lead and more an example of the kind of hate comedians spew.  As the great A.O. Scott wrote of The Comedy, "If you can discern any critical distance or interesting perspective here, or even a good reason to spend 90 minutes in such company, I’m afraid the joke is on you."  Scott's words are almost as applicable to Entertainment as they were to The Comedy.

The Entertainer has its faults, but contains cinematography which alienates The Entertainer from the world in an affecting way.

Entertainment has its faults, but has cinematography which alienates The Entertainer from the world in an affecting way.

All of this is to say Alverson is clearly skilled in a sort of meta filmmaking whose purpose remains murky, though Entertainment is by no means a poorly assembled movie.  The cinematography by Lorenzo Hagerman is superb, clearly establishing the lonely existence of The Entertainer as someone who is literally encircled by hollowness in the guts of an airplane before trying to feel something with color therapy.  Hagerman shoots The Entertainer's stand-up act often from behind with only The Entertainer in focus and the audience blurry.  It matters little who the audience is, only that The Entertainer is up there on stage telling his sometimes nasty jokes in his gross persona.

Those familiar with Turkington's comedy as Neil Hamburger may get some mileage out of these scenes.  I did find some bits to appreciate here, from the way The Entertainer has to put in a lot of disgusting and degrading work to appear so slovenly in front of the audience.  There was a moment Entertainment seemed to be breaking free of its rigid doom and gloom structure as Turkington keeps growling "Why?" in an attempt to start a joke, like The Entertainer would finally come alive and destroy the audience he hates.  His quieter dramatic moments are potent as well, bringing an unhinged quality to The Entertainer's voice as he tries in vain to contact his daughter.

If I'm making it sound like Entertainment is miserable, well, it is.  Alverson, who wrote the screenplay along with Turkington and Tim Heidecker (who starred in The Comedy), moves the plot through one torturous scene after another.  The Entertainer often clashes with the audience and grows so quietly hostile toward the rest of existence it acts as a magnet for those worst off.  This, like The Comedy, could work as a sort of ironic juxtaposition, "Oh, look at the entertainer, he just wants us to laugh but he has to deal with our worst," if Entertainment weren't so doggedly committed to The Entertainer's misery.

Turkington's tortured performance kept me interested in seeing The Entertainer to its end.

Gregg Turkington's tortured performance kept me interested in seeing The Entertainer to its end.

The opening images tell us as much as we need to know about The Entertainer from the moment of solitude in the gutted airplane to his first show.  Alverson has The Entertainer perform first in a prison, an image so literal to how The Entertainer is trapped by his profession the rest of his downward spiral seems subtle in contrast.  The Entertainer is often seen staring off into nothing, driving or walking to the desert horizon, and engaging in small talk which seems to pain the man.  Variance only comes to the degree The Entertainer is tormented, starting with hostile crowds, continuing with a threatening request for companionship (from an effective Michael Cera), and concluding in a penultimate scene involving a pregnant woman which is so absurdly bleak it almost circles back around to comedy.

What importance I can glean from The Entertainment's hour and a half of misery may be beyond my comprehension.  I can only frame it against the dual ideas of Pagliacci as its one "joke" is how existence itself is a lonely joke.  Plenty of great films have been made with this idea at their forefront but tend to contain a momentum for the characters or plot.  Instead we pop in Entertainment with a miserable man, watch his well photographed and performed descent, then end at about the same point we started.

Alverson has a niche as the meticulous photography and emotionally distant subject of Entertainment is an easy extension from The Comedy.  This is a shallow approach featuring characters as dynamic as a Saturday morning cartoon from the '80s.  You could maybe make the case that Alverson is creating a miserable feature film to grab attention from all those other miserable films which sometimes gobble up awards.  I'm not keen on making those leaps, and if you are perhaps you'll find redemption in Entertainment, because The Entertainer isn't going to.

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Tail - EntertainmentEntertainment (2015)

Directed by Rick Alverson.
Screenplay written by Rick Alverson, Tim Heidecker, and Gregg Turkington.
Starring Gregg Turkington, Tye Sheridan, and John C. Reilly.

Posted by Andrew

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