The Funniest Joke in the World: On Rick Alverson’s Entertainment

alverson entertaiment

By Phil Coldiron

When viewed from within the bounds of the traditional, psychologically involved viewer, Entertainment, Rick Alverson’s second mature feature following The Comedy (2012), plays as the darkly comic passion of a man circling the drain leading down from one symbolic scene of death to another; an unpleasant journey, but still, a journey. It is only as our vantage point recedes from the film on waves of repulsion that its second aspect becomes visible, as a portrait of a character pinned painfully, eternally, in place on the dusty ground of the American Southwest as he slowly realizes the absolute flatness of his existence. The Comedy deployed Tim Heidecker’s particular talent with repugnance, spewing forth through a steady stream of insults delivered pleadingly, and a preference for the sort of boorishly unflattering summer attire seen on only the most thoughtless of monied Brooklynites, clearing a path for a queasy excursion to the limits of laughter as a palliative. Entertainment likewise stymies any sense of the possibility of dramatic involvement, ingesting veteran oddball Gregg Turkington’s running act as the splenetic lounge-rat comedian Neil Hamburger (credited here simply as The Comedian) and running on its self-defeating vitriol towards its ultimate joke about the comic art of living.

At this late date in the history of reflexive art, the journey which is in fact no journey at all is certainly nothing odd in itself; in allowing the artist to make use of one of the oldest of narrative forms while posing as if in total rejection of traditional ideas about story and character, it’s a quick route to mock seriousness. What is odd, and serious, about Entertainment are the ways that its two levels—which we can call earnest and ironic—act on and against each other in a tricky play for the viewer’s sympathies.

Though filled with intricately imagined oddities and grotesqueries, the shape of Entertainment’s journey is simple. Turkington’s Comedian stomps through dive bars and dingy clubs across the Mojave Desert toward an inevitable end in Hollywood, playing to audiences who are, with the pointed exception of a literally captive group at the film’s prison-set opening performance, just as indifferent to his presence as the blankly Western expanses and towns he spends much of his off-the-job time wandering through. On stage, he festers and wretches under the weight of a bad tuxedo and an armful of drinks, not so much delivering his non-jokes as spewing them compulsively. (For example, “Why did E.T. the Extraterrestrial love Reese’s Pieces so much? Well, because they have the same flavour that cum does on his home planet.”) Off stage, he seems to be forever retreating turtle-like into some imagined shell, his hunched shoulders and pursed lips the only defenses against a world merely capable of disappointment.

The most persistent of these disappointments is a daughter—indifferent, if she exists at all—to whom, in one of the film’s two structuring repetitions, he leaves a series of unanswered, “Hi, Honey…” voicemails, attempts at connection and communication built out of tedious details accumulating into a desperation that’s pathetic in the way only a parent can be. (Consider: “Today I took a tour of an airplane graveyard that they have out here. And they got every plane you can think of: 737, 747, jumbo jets…and you just walk right into the planes and I…will talk to you again soon. Goodnight.”) With his natural pallor accentuated by a road warrior’s greasy hair and darkened lids and a collection of the sort of cheap T-shirts that are ill-fitting enough to remind one that anything can be uncomfortable, Turkington delivers such lines with a convincing sense of defeat; swimming in the sick, shifting light of a motel room lit by the TV, he sighs as much as he speaks. And yet, as psychological filmmaking, these moments are ridiculous, as worn out as the image of a lonely, bent man drifting through airplane skeletons in the desert—a slab of symbolism so gooey that only a Wenders could love it. In both cases, this failure to convince is one of taste.

It’s precisely here, in the conscious deployment of dead forms, that Alverson’s earnestness finds its greatest complexity. After squeezing dry the shallow focus DSLR richness of so many “well-mounted” contemporary indies in The Comedy, he has now reached further back into the history of quality cinema, to the widescreen boredoms of a half-century of art film working in the shadow of Antonioni. A scene in which an oppressively helpful, wealthy cousin played by John C. Reilly suddenly disappears in an orange grove makes explicit the debt to L’avventura (1960); in a telling difference, Reilly’s character returns to the film almost immediately. We’ve grown comfortable enough with the precariousness of our lives that the sudden disappearance of what we’ve known is no longer a catalyst to existential crisis, but a simple fact to be dealt with as calmly as any other inconvenience. (There is, in these post-auratic days, nothing that can’t be replaced.) Though he finds a number of similarly smart, small ways to push back against the film’s exhausted style, Alverson is nonetheless content to stick small bodies at the centre of his expansive ‘Scope frames, testing the ability of the space of the screen to express the pat distance between a wounded private life and a monstrous public one. This overly literal linking of character and visual style offers little in the way of dramatic, emotional, or psychological nourishment: the reintroduction of psychological realism seems unlikely to breathe life back into any exhausted modernist form. Alverson’s commitment to these failures allows the film to slowly accrue a seriousness that finally breaks through to a new expressive space as it sprawls into its nervy final third.

One of the trademarks of the Hamburger-Comedian routine is an eagerness to berate his miniscule audiences; the smallest of audience interruptions is met with absolute disdain on the part of the offended party. This tendency reaches a breaking point when a woman (Amy Seimetz) loudly asks a man to leave her alone during The Comedian’s set, an action which sets off a hideous rant that begins with him ridiculing her “syphilis breath” and grows only more repugnant from there. It is an awful, nearly unwatchable moment, and it is also where Entertainment finds its challenging groove. As shots ping back and forth between Seimetz’s frazzled barfly and Turkington’s unhinged Comedian, the question of context becomes unavoidable. The Comedian’s act is based in the intellectual pleasure to be found in studying the play of exhausted forms. Unlike many of his fellow “anti-comics,” his material retains a shape that we recognize—there is no effort to redefine what a joke looks like—and instead finds its foul energy by an outright rejection of one of the oldest tenets of comedy: wit. As such, it is both unsophisticated (in its earnest mode) and snobbish (in its ironic one), and in placing this act in front of the working-class denizens of dive bars and rural clubs, Alverson imagines a friction that could never come to be in the presence of a knowing, urban audience. When the woman follows The Comedian into the parking lot after his performance and physically assaults him, the tenuous coherence of his on- and off-stage personalities begins to dissolve, taking the formal coherence of its style apart in the process.

This unravelling moves Entertainment away from its arthouse stew of Antonioni and Bergman towards a tone and style closer to David Lynch’s Los Angeles nightmares. After drifting banally through its first hour (The Comedian finds himself in numerous off-stage situations that are as inconsequential as they are inconvenient), the film quickly tumbles through a succession of disconcerting spaces and scenarios: a lone car mauled by the side of a desert road; one rest-stop bathroom populated by an on-edge Michael Cera, and another by a woman giving birth; a house party that leads to obscure rituals and images (a shot of Turkington, clad only in his briefs and illuminated by a single spotlight, makes the Lynch influence impossible to ignore); and, finally, to the second symbolic death: a Hollywood house party—the star, naturally, played by Tim Heidecker as a maniac screaming insults at a swimming pool full of children—where The Comedian emerges from a cake only to fall screaming onto the perfectly manicured lawn, before stumbling fully clothed into the swimming pool where he floats gasping. As each of these scenes grows progressively more surreal, The Comedian simultaneously recedes as a traditional character with legible feelings and emerges instead as the core of the film’s rich, abstract expression of the troubles of self-consciousness.

Alverson’s coda comes with the last instance of Entertainment’s second structuring repetition, a series of dreamy sequences in which The Comedian finds himself wearing a rhinestone cowboy suit amongst the cast of something like a telenovela. As the film reaches its end, we see him laughing hysterically in the glow of another motel television, watching himself onscreen as a middle-aged Latino man wearing a bathrobe and an oxygen tank assaults him. This recognition of himself as nothing more than an image adrift in a baffling context is, like The Comedian’s act and the film itself, not a joke, but perhaps great comedy. It is here that the two levels, earnest and ironic, become indistinguishable: a fictional character is sitting in a room laughing at the recognition of what he truly is, at the total absence of control of his situation, at the fundamental flatness of his being. Whether you find this to be a satisfying punch line depends on the degree to which you can relate.