Three years ago, Rick Alverson’s previous film, The Comedy, premiered at Sundance. The reception was wholly divisive, with many either loving or hating it. In the same vein as The Comedy, Alverson’s follow-up film, Entertainment, intends to poke and prod at audiences with the same subversive fervor.
Director: Rick Alverson
Release Date: January 24, 2015 (Sundance)
The unnamed protagonist of Entertainment (referred to as The Comedian, portrayed by Gregg Turkington) is a middle-aged comedian touring the Californian desert while playing at less-than-stellar venues to even lesser-than-stellar audiences. By day, he’s a schmuck wandering around unpronounced areas, but by night, he slightly comes alive once he hits the stage. However, his jokes are alienating, jarring, and unforgivable, and when audiences heckle him, he heckles back twice as hard, creating awkward and uncomfortable situations. Throughout his journey, he leaves nightly voicemails to an estranged daughter who doesn’t seem too interested in seeing or hearing from him. The film comes to a head when The Comedian attempts to perform at a glitzy children’s birthday party in Hollywood, only to have a mental breakdown.
Fans of Turkington will instantly recognize The Comedian’s similarities to Turkington’s most famous character, Neil Hamburger. The jokes in the film resemble some Hamburger’s style of comedy that is intended to ruffle feathers and create unease within the audience. Indeed, it’s this uneasiness that’s carried over through the entire film. The Comedian is washed-up hasbeen (if he ever had been in the first place), and his desperation to justify his performances is truly uncomfortable to witness. Off-stage, his jarring discomfort is seen, such as an encounter with another man (Michael Cera) asking for help inside a rest stop bathroom.
The title Entertainment is used ironically, since the film doesn’t necessarily entertain audiences. Rather, the film challenges its viewers to truly examine what entertainment is and how much so-called entertainers have to go through to deliver their brand of “entertainment.” Juxtaposed with The Comedian’s self-deprecating performance is his tour buddy, Eddie the Opener (Tye Sheridan), who applies clown makeup and partakes in scat humor for laughs. Which of these approaches can be defined as “entertainment?”
From a film standpoint, Entertainment is admittedly boring and uninteresting where crowds will be split between those that “got” it and those that didn’t. However, from a deeper level of examining and critiquing art, Entertainment is the type of film that will have audiences picking it apart to find its true meaning. In saying that, it’ll fit well with fans of alternative/anti-comedy and art school crowds, but general audiences will avoid it.