Entertainment: The Anti-Comedy, by Matt Warren
While watching director Rick Alverson’s confrontational new anti-comedy Entertainment, I was reminded of an old joke: What’s the difference between a dead baby and a bathtub? Easy—you can’t fuck a bathtub. For years this was my favorite joke. Dirty, ugly, mean. The sort of punk joke where the punchline isn’t the coarse twist at the end so as much as it is the audacity it takes on behalf the teller to tell it. I don’t like this joke anymore, but I still tell it sometimes. But these days the baby isn’t the punchline—I am. After all, what sort of idiot tells a joke like that? I’ll tell you: a self-aware idiot who knows exactly what he’s doing. This is something Alverson and his co-writer/star/subject Gregg Turkington—aka “Neil Hamburger”—understand innately. And together they’ve created the most existentially bleak portrait of a tortured road performer since Inside Llewyn Davis.
Alt-comedy fans may already be familiar with Turkington’s “Neil Hamburger” persona: a greasy, anachronistic lounge lizard grotesque in a natty prom tuxedo clutching multiple drinks, moist with gin sweat, the tentacles of his inky black comb-over gripped to his forehead like suction puckers. Hamburger is the toilet that shits back, unleashing a series of phlegm-encased insult-comic one-liners staggeringly brutal in both their cruelty and their dumbness. Sometimes these jokes are funny despite themselves. More often, the joke is on the audience. Except—isn’t the audience then in on it, too? Who knows? We’re entering some pretty sophisticated performance art chicanery here, and morally complex as well.
Alverson’s follow-up to the equally provocative The Comedy, Entertainment follows an expressionistically sadsack road comic (tellingly named “Neil”—not “Gregg” or “Gregg Turkington”) on an apocalyptic road trip across the California desert. Onstage, Neil transforms into the “Neil Hamburger” we’ve all come to know and (?) love. Offstage, he’s a functionally polite introvert, clinically depressed to the point of somnambulism. As the film opens, Neil/“Neil Hamburger” is performing in a prison cafeteria for a group of convicted murders and rapists. The venues and audiences only do downhill from there, with Hamburger facing off against an ever-more displeased collection of violent drunks and outright psychopaths, as the film slips deeper into feverish nightmare surrealism. Basically, we’re in Hell, and to no one’s surprise Hell looks a lot like Bakersfield.
I have no idea how this all might play for general audiences but it’s some fascinating stuff if you’re already familiar with the “Neil Hamburger” conceit. As a fan I’d already heard many of these jokes before, but it was shocking how different Turkington’s bizarre one-liners seemed when met with stony silence rather than appreciative UCB tittering and applause. If nothing else, it’s a stark illustration of how standup functions as a two-way art form, with the audience’s response contributing to the experience just as much as the raw ore expelled (or in Turkington’s case, vomited) by the performer. Like The Comedy, Entertainment examines the moment at which Amusement itself curdles to become an organism that’s actively trying to kill the host rather than set its soul free.
Entertainment is deliberate in both content and form. Alverson translates the boredom and depression of the road into muted colors, languid long shots, and foreboding stillness. It’s a beautiful film to look at, but it moves pretty slowly. I was frequently shifting uncomfortably in my seat, but not always for the reasons Alverson and Turkington intend. But the slowness is justified by the film’s themes. Entertainment’s aesthetics prioritize tasteful shot composition and tableaux over camera movement and snappy editing rhythms. I liked the movie, but it was still a little boring. But that’s okay. It’s good that I was bored. I deserve to be bored. I’m shit. Or at least that’s just my critical response.
Would I recommend Entertainment to a Cub Scout troop or my aging German immigrant grandmother? I would not. But would I recommend it to alt-comedy fans, or folks with a taste for transgressive filmmaking? Duh, of course I would. But who knows. Maybe you should show this movie to someone who’d hate it. It’d be a fun joke. Like fucking a baby.