There appears to be no slowing down this tradition, spearheaded in recent years by pioneering types like Louis C.K., of comedians telling stories characterized by metafictional personas, intense melancholy, an indie cinema aesthetic and a prickly sense of anti-comedy subversion. And, indeed, why would you want it slowed down if the results are anything like Rick Alverson’s Entertainment? Alverson, who gave us the similarly gonzo The Comedy in 2012, is pulling the same trick on viewers with this latest film in that Entertainment isn’t exactly conventionally entertaining just as The Comedy was anything but. It oozes despair, dysfunction and takes the form of one long emotional spiral and, as such, earns its spot in our current sad-clown renaissance.
Entertainment is a feature-length riff on lead actor Gregg Turkington’s long-running Neil Hamburger persona. Over the course of many years, albums and appearances, Turkington has developed sweaty sad-sack Hamburger — a crass and deeply unfunny insult comedian in a ratty tuxedo — into his most enduring gag. In this film, Alverson and Turkington decide to take the fictionalized Hamburger on the road, building the narrative around the discomfiting question of what would happen if he decided to take his act on a dismal tour of the pokiest small-town dive bars across a chunk of the California desert. This is not, however, a fictionalization along the lines of something like Borat, where Sacha Baron Cohen took an off-putting character and set him off against (mostly) real people. Entertainment has a proper story and script and Hamburger is taken seriously as a character who operates in conjunction with an accomplished supporting cast that includes John C. Reilly as his rancher cousin, Tye Sheridan as a clown and Michael Cera as, well, you’ll see.
Turkington knows his way around this character, hitting all the right notes whether it’s with the throat-clearing and venom of the stage sets or the mounting desperation apparent off-stage.
The film unsurprisingly dons the cringe humor mantle early. Neil Hamburger may be a clever joke to clued-in Turkington fans in hipster bars but, in this alternate universe in which he’s a real person performing his act unironically, the crowds are hostile and unsparing. But brutal and blackly hilarious though the performance sequences are, this isn’t a gimmick film built around the awkwardness of his repeated bombing. Where Alverson and Turkington really make an impression is in building out this floundering wreckage of a human being. Long stretches of the film linger on his odd tourist detours to destinations like airplane graveyards, in hotel rooms as he tries to connect with an estranged daughter, or on his awkward exchanges with his estranged cousin. Turkington knows his way around this character, hitting all the right notes whether it’s with the throat-clearing and venom of the stage sets or the mounting desperation apparent off-stage. Alverson complements the performance with some inspired direction that takes its cues from David Lynch. As Hamburger’s emotional well-being — such as it is — starts to unravel, the film grows more narratively and aesthetically outré. Its desert motels and neon oases feel like they’re straight out of Lost Highway or Wild At Heart, and a characteristically creepy cameo by Lynch regular Dean Stockwell just seals that particular deal.
It’s never entirely clear whether Alverson and Turkington are parodying or simply reiterating the thesis that underpins this new film and TV tradition — that comedians are essentially lonely and miserable people. It doesn’t particularly matter. Entertainment can be read both ways. It’s not that this conception of every humorist as a potential Pagliacci is revolutionary in some way. It’s more like the premise has proved particularly pliable in the service of launching salvos of observational humor, picking over a more universal brand of existential angst or simply allowing for the quirks of a certain kind of artist to find free rein. On his TV show, Louis C.K. starts with the premise of the sad comedian and uses it to find nuggets of truth and wisdom in every grimy New York nook and cranny he looks. While Entertainment isn’t quite as ambitious in its search for said truths, it takes (dis)comfort from creating a clear-eyed portrait of one man’s utter failure to find them.