Surreal, tragic, playful, powerful and above all else a prime example of what the kids call “anti-comedy,” Rick Alverson’s ‘Entertainment’ is one of the most fascinating, if frustrating, movies of the year.
The film walks a fine line between an honest and truthful deconstruction of the entertainment industry and a Lynchian fever dream. Some will adore and embrace the movie. Others will scratch their heads dismissively. Yet the peculiar power and fierce intelligence of the project is quite simply unlike anything else.
Gregg Turkington stars as a pathetic traveling comedian. On stage, he adopts the Neil Hamburger persona that Turkington has performed to cult success for over a decade. Dressed like a Borscht Belt reject with a slimy comb-over, Hamburger belts out deliberately offensive and deceptively intelligent one-liner comedy in a perverse deconstruction of most comedians’ attempts to turn their self-loathing and bile into belly laughs. It works for Turkington in the real world, but in the film he travels around to deeply depressing bars and performs to audiences in the high single digits. His act is met with confusion and hostility (the latter of which he’s all too willing to return).
In his offstage life, the comedian wanders from one lonely room and landscape to the next, seemingly unable to connect with anyone or anything. He’s steadfast in his artistic integrity, even if the rewards and recognition aren’t there to support it. Throughout it all, Alverson maintains a queasy, dreamlike tone with sudden bursts of nightmarish surrealism that may or may not actually be happening.
At times, the film is quite funny and even satirically insightful. The best of that material arrives with John C. Reilly as the comedian’s relative, who’s impressed by the comic’s ability to put himself out there, but confused by his business practices (or lack thereof). Other moments involving the comedian’s confused attempts to relate to other people recall the aggressive cringe comedy of Alverson’s previous ironically-titled feature ‘The Comedy’ (starring Tim Heidecker, who co-wrote ‘Entertainment’ with the director and star). The angst, pain and laughs all serve Alverson’s exploration of the disconnect between the desire for a genuine artist to entertain and yet refuse to pander to an audience for results. The character puts up walls while expressing himself, which seems to accurately reflect his own hostility towards a world that has no place for him.
Alverson also takes a big leap forward as a visual storyteller here. The painful silences and uneasy rambling of ‘The Comedy’ remain, but the visual style is far more detached and ornate. Long takes and evocative compositions create a certain tension and moody atmosphere that elevate the tone out of realism, and Alverson gleefully pushes that into nightmarish passages. The point of view and themes of the piece are quite clear, but the meaning remains mysterious. As funny and resonant as ‘Entertainment’ can be in one sequence, the next might prove alienating and abstract. The result is a difficult movie, but so hypnotic and enigmatic that it’s impossible to shake.
The film has a way of lingering in the mind long after the credits roll that makes up for any frustration that occurs beforehand. It’s such a funny and painfully real tale that you can’t help but be moved, but also pushes far beyond straightforward narrative or dramatic conventions. Alverson is maturing into one of the most interesting directors of his generation, and his partnership with Turkington and Heidecker has yielded two fascinating movies that find an intriguing middle ground between experimental filmmaking, ’70s era character study, and contemporary underground comedy. Hopefully the inventive trio’s collaboration will continue, because they’re really onto something fascinating and unique, even if it takes a certain brand of adventurous weirdo to appreciate what they’ve done.