Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Punching The Clown (***)

Directed by Gregori Viens


'Punching The Clown' will be making its Central Florida debut at the Florida Film Festival on April 12th (9pm) at Regal Winter Park. It will play again on April 15th (4:30pm) at Regal Winter Park as well. It is a Narrative Competition selection. For more information, click here.

Did Robert Altman perfect the Hollywood satire with his biting film The Player? Probably, but it hasn't stopped many filmmakers from trying to top him. Punching The Clown is a film that gives it a shot. It's a modest shot, but an audacious one. From the music business to the stand-up comedy hierarchy to the sketchy cafe industry, the film covers all the dark corners of Los Angeles and reveals that everyone's struggling. But of course, these people's pain make for some great comedy.

Henry Phillips (playing himself) is a comedian who sings humorous folk songs about his pathetic life and bad luck with women. There is "The Bitch Song" in which he bemoans the tale of an ex-girlfriend who was a miserable human being without any particular influence ("And even though I tried to give her all the love she needs, somehow she's a bitch anyway"). There is also "The End of the World" in which he talks about doing cocaine off a transsexual hooker's ambiguous crotch. Not surprisingly, his act does not garner much traction, so he drives out to Los Angeles in hopes to make some easy money.

Henry crashes on the couch of his brother Matt (Matthew Walker) who is an equal failure--he performs as Batman at elementary birthday parties. But Matt is able to get Henry in touch with a talent agent named Ellen (Ellen Ratner in a hilarious performance), who makes up in optimism what she lacks in industry know-how (among seeing Henry's act for the first time, she declares that she'll promote him as "James Taylor on smack!"). He is able to find a consistent gig at a coffee bar where he starts to develop a loyal audience who dig his songs on road life and screwing up with women.

When Ellen is finally able to get him in touch with a record executive named Fabian (Guilford Adams), Henry seems like he will finally achieve the success he has coveted during all his trips across the country. That is when an incident involving some gourmet bagels (that is way too languid and hilarious to get into here) starts the ball rolling on a vicious, unfounded rumor that could threaten his shot at the big time.

There are numerous other subplots throughout the film, including a fellow novelty music artist who is aptly named "Stupid Joe" and an eccentric radio show host named Captain Chaotic (played with great wit by Wade Kelly). There are many times when Punching The Clown truly blurs the line between broad and unfocused, but there is never a moment where it is uninteresting. It never relents in its humor, but it does so without being aggressive or forcing laughs. If anything, the film's dialogue is drowned in mum subtlety that enhances the abrasiveness of the words. It has the movement of a Curb Your Enthusiasm, but all the characters feel so much more real.

I'm not sure the film succeeds as a Hollywood satire, but it does give a substantial peek behind the curtain in regards to the lower dregs of the comedy circuit. Basically, this is what Funny People wanted to be. By funneling the story through the near comatose voice of Henry Phillips, we are able to see it as a cautionary tale that is still incredibly watchable and entertaining. The screenplay (written by Phillips and director Gregori Viens) saves most of its venom for the music industry, which it dismisses as superficial and simply unintelligent (and wouldn't you have to be to sign an artist like Phillips?).

Of course, the success of the film hinders on the performance of Phillips. Sure, you could question the skill he displays since he is literally playing himself, but its that vantage point that makes Punching The Clown so lovely. I'm not a sure a more naturally responsive protagonist would work as well, and I certainly don't think it would be as funny. Surely, the film works on two levels: the one in which it tells the narrative of Phillips trying to make it in L.A. and the other level in which Phillips and his songs are showcased. The film's best moments are when Phillips is invigorating an audience with his clever insights on life and hilarious tunes.

Punching The Clown is an exceedingly under-budgeted film that creates great humor with nothing other than its own pure cleverness. After watching Avatar's trailblazing run toward box office history, sometimes it's hard to believe that a film can succeed without superstars and a grandiose amount of money behind it. Watching this film made me smile because it is obvious that there are still films being made with real energy and dedication, and without one eye looking toward the end gain.

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