Like the many gin-soaked lounge comedians of a half-century’s past, Neil Hamburger delivers his peculiar brand of comedy to fringe communities of the American Southwest in hopes of bringing joy. Part Henny Youngman, part Tony Clifton, Hamburger’s act is more performance art than funnyman, spouting strings of crude question/answer jokes to a mostly silent audience. A deeply unsettling meander into the recesses of this disturbed comedian’s slowly-shattering mind, Entertainment is Rick Alverson and Greg Turkington’s painful eulogy to life on the road as an entertainer.
Struggling to rectify their life aspirations with making a living, the face-painted Eddie (Tye Sheridan) and his greasy, tuxedoed partner (Greg Turkington) trudge their way across the desert, playing night after night to mostly empty rooms. A fictionalized Turkington is Alverson’s main focus, as quietly watching him fall into tourist traps during the day and methodically combing his hair at night become a film-long ritual. Fighting through depression and flat-out rejection from his audiences, The Comedian seems to be holding on by a thread. Shy, yet unabashedly quiet, his transformation into Neil Hamburger is a startling opposition to his real-life persona, giving him the freedom to release obscenities and vitriol onto a flippantly undeserving audience (as he often sees them).
Although often funeral in its approach to The Comedian’s life, Entertainment relishes in the persistence of this “road warrior” and the detached beauty of a man following his dream. Nightly unanswered calls to an estranged daughter and an impromptu overnight with a distant cousin (a great turn from the always great John C. Reilly) hint at the heavy price this strange man has paid for his art, underpinning the sense of utter isolation conveyed by his geographical remoteness. The oppressive vastness of his surroundings hint at the cavernous heartache felt by the performer, but it is his day trips that best accentuate his despair. An airplane graveyard, a California oilfield dotted with faintly-squeaking pumpjacks and a Western ghost town become allegories for The Comedian’s line of work. Just as each may have been useful and full of vitality at one point, they are now outmoded relics of the past.
Alverson’s choice of aspect ratio (2.66:1) further alienates Turkington who becomes lost inside the wide expanse of the thoughtfully scopic shots. The contrast between the intimate portrait of a performer’s fraying psyche and these expansive frames results in an almost out-of-body experience filmed first-hand. Robert Donne has composed some altogether unnerving pieces for the many penetrating close-ups and equally personal long shots of Turkington in silent reflection, the eerie Lynchian “sounds” hinting at the main character’s creeping madness. Without these ominous tones, the mood of the film would be lost, and The Comedian’s surreal journey would become an entirely sad, dream-chasing charade.
Perhaps the most amusing and unusual disparity was my reaction to Neil Hamburger’s inane jokes. As an avid fan, watching him perform to a crowd of unaware small-town Americans made his jokes land all the more strongly. Listening through my own laughter to the silence broken up by Hamburger’s signature throat clearing or audience chiding highlighted a curiously powerful empathic tool. The fusion of a real-world comedy personality and a fictionalized performer elevated the familiar jokes to a misunderstood art form, which made his failure all the more compelling.
Not merely a story about the loneliness of a career on the road, Entertainment is the struggle of a man singularly steadfast in his pursuit of his chosen art. Hamburger may not get many laughs or find worldwide success, but his consistent refusal to give up (or shy away from stone-faced crowds) is oddly inspiring and deeply, blackly hilarious.
Jordan Brooks (@viewtoaqueue) is an increasingly-snobby cinefile based out of London, England. As a contributor to several online publications, including his own blog, he has succeeded in fulfilling his life long dream of imposing strong opinions on others.