Director Rick Alverson follows up his highly polarizing previous feature, “The Comedy” (I’m thumbs up), with a story of another, albeit very different, man at loose ends.
In “Entertainment,” Neil Hamburger (Gregg Turkington’s standup persona), makes his way in his corroded Corolla through the Mojave Desert to Los Angeles, “on tour,” performing his comedy routine (for a literally captive audience at a California state prison, in crummy lounges and at an RV park), and taking in the tourist sites, such that they are–an airplane graveyard, an “olde” fake western town, an oil field.
Hamburger, dressed in a ill-fitting tux and brocade vest, his stringy hair styled in an extreme comb-over, greased across his forehead and skull, cradles three drinks, like a baby, in the crook of his arm. His comic timing is non-existent. With a voice with the appeal of “neils” on a blackboard, punctuated by an equally abrasive constant clearing of his throat, he delivers jokes that are off-the-mark, offensive, aggressive, not funny (except when they’re hilarious)–sometimes simultaneously. Rape is a favorite topic.
Hamburger’s off-stage appearance is only slightly less disturbing. He has a JCPenney wardrobe, polo shirts and shapeless pants, and a snapback cap promoting a Chinese restaurant, “Hoong Fat.” His affect is subdued, resigned, his posture poor, sinking into himself, evoking sympathy from the viewer.
His encounters with other people, including a distant and successful cousin (John C. Reilly), who owns orange groves and a plane, are at best awkward. But he endlessly tries to connect with Maria, his daughter, whom he calls “sweetheart” (identifying himself as Daddy), leaving interminable (and unrequited) voicemails. And in his dreamlife, he wears an all-white cowboy outfit, a glowing suit with a bejeweled, wide-lapeled jacket and an enormous hat. Although the outfit is undeniably odd, it’s somehow also angelic.
Less happens in “Entertainment,” than in “The Comedy,” the sameness echoing the reality of Hamburger’s life on the road. He reaches L.A. and the “big break” booking at a new Gilded Age Hollywood Hills mansion, ends in disaster, with him tumbling into the pool.
Yet the “anti-comic,” like Samuel Beckett’s hero, must be thinking, “I can’t go on, I’ll go on.” Maybe Alverson and Hamburger (who says that he “traveled a long distance to carry these jokes” to the audience) are trying to jolt us out of our often banal pop/consumerist culture, by giving us exactly the entertainment we deserve.
“Entertainment,” the closing night film of the Museum of Modern Art and the Film Society of Lincoln Center’s 44th New Directors/New Films, will be shown on Sunday, March 29 at 4:00 pm (MoMA, Titus 1) and 7:00 pm (FSLC, Walter Reade Theater). A Q&A with Rick Alverson will follow both screenings.