Nextfest Review: Entertainment, by David Bax
Rick Alverson’s challenging, stirring, at times forcefully unpleasant but vital new film Entertainment starts with perhaps its most beautiful sequence, one that is surprisingly hopeful given the fact that it takes place in a kind of cemetery. The film’s protagonist, played by Gregg Turkington and unnamed in the credits (though another character does call him Neil), takes a tour of an “airplane graveyard,” where the husks of decommissioned planes bake in the desert sun. He walks through the empty fuselage of one of them and the long, arched ceiling above him resembles a cathedral. It’s a beatific origin for a story that will plum darker and more nightmarish depths as it proceeds. With Entertainment, Alverson attempts to chart the metaphysical landscape that exists between a performer’s persona and the real world identity and finds that it’s a lot like hell.
Turkington plays a comedian on tour, playing the prisons, dive bars and living rooms of California’s Kern County with a clown (Tye Sheridan, impressive yet again) as his opening act. Turkington is here donning the abrasive, old school club comic character of Neil Hamburger that he’s been performing for twenty years. Hamburger’s insistent vulgarity isn’t everyone’s cup of tea and that holds just as true within Entertainment as in real life. Over the course of the film, he becomes more and more reactionary and aggressive on stage, progressing from the standard comedian’s work of shutting down hecklers to a desperate arrogance and, eventually, a horridly misogynistic rant directed at a women (Amy Seimetz) who did little more than object to having been bumped into. It’s during this rant that he says, “The sign outside doesn’t say Hell,” the only time that word is actually used in the movie, despite the fact that most of it arguably takes place there. Meanwhile, offstage, Neil (let’s just call him Neil) leaves nightly voicemails for his daughter, who never answers his calls, and offers little but surly aloofness to friendly relatives (John C. Reilly plays Neil’s cousin) and others, like the family of the bartender who allow him to sleep on their couch.
Turkington/Hamburger is the perfect choice to lead this story. Offstage, Turkington is phlegmatic and placid in a way that just might suggest a roiling psychological storm beneath the surface. And the conceptual oddity of Hamburger is surreal on its own, even before being placed in front of half full audiences of disinterested locals. The two personas’ disconnect – both from reality and from one another – raises questions as to which one of them the story is about.
Entertainment’s desert setting adds ambient harshness, if not clarity as to the film’s literal location. Yes, we’re in Bakersfield and its environs but Alverson only shows us an unforgiving and bleak translation of it. It’s more a perdition of the mind than a place on a map. Robert Donne’s haunting, droning score doesn’t offer any comfort either.
If the film as described in this review sounds like a trial, it very well may be for some. There were a few walkouts at the Nextfest screening. But for those who can take the punishment doled out to and by Neil, it’s an intriguing gem of anti-narrative, obscurant cinema. Entertainment is a film that hearty and curious viewers will return to time and again in an attempt to parse its meaning (what, for instance, is the deal with Lotte Verbeek’s “chromotherapist” character and the saturating, primary color filters that Alverson uses repeatedly after her introduction?). I know I look forward to doing so.