Entertainment (2015, dir. Rick Alverson)
Entertainment is an anti-film. It is the opposite of life affirming, life refuting. It is a road trip to nowhere, about a man who fails to find himself and instead lost forever. Entertainment is purgatory. This is the intent of director Rick Alverson, who helmed the abrasive 2012 independent film The Comedy. In the same way that Tim & Eric deconstruct comedy, Alverson is breaking down the aimless dreamer in search of their dream.
The focus of Entertainment is an unnamed Comedian (played by Gregg Turkington). While the protagonist may be nameless, fans familiar with Turkington’s stage persona of Neil Hamburger will know that this is a fictionalized version of the performer. The Hamburger persona is an assault on the audience of his comedy shows. His material is exaggeratedly homophobic, misogynistic, grossly sexual, and crude. The concept behind this is a comedian who thinks so little of his audience he believes this is the best they deserve. Contrasted with this is Turkington endlessly waiting between shows. He goes on local tours of industry in the Southwestern United States: an airplane graveyard, an oil field, a ghost town built as part of a mineral boom. The landscapes he walks through are husks.
The Comedian himself is a husk. He’s in his forties, performing at low-end dive bars or worse. The first location we see him at is a prison. His last location is at the birthday party of a spoiled rich, aggressive man (played by Tim Heidecker). That final performance concludes with The Comedian bursting out of a cake and bursting into tears. He ends up spending time with a financially successful cousin (John C. Reilly) who tries to advise him on his comedy act, continually saying it’s great but then talking about making it appeal to “all four quadrants.” As we get to know the cousin we see his misery come to the surface as well.
Two constants refrain throughout the film. The first is Eddie the Opener (Tye Sheridan) a clown/mime who opens The Comedian’s sets. Eddie hasn’t been worn down by the road yet. He shares the cynicism of The Comedian towards the audience but takes joy in the performance. The other refrain is The Comedian’s nightly voicemails to an unseen estranged daughter. He expresses frustration eventually at his inability to get a hold of her, the messages growing more and more desperate.
Both Turkington and Alverson have a keen interest in discomfort and provocation. In an interview with Vanity Fair, Alverson explains his personal view on “positive” cinema:
There’s a common insistence that representations of the positive lift us up and buoy us. I’ve never experienced that. At least not in a prolonged way. The idea of resolution has always seemed weird to me. I think if a movie has any naturalistic pretensions or elements in it at all, it needs to respect and represent the disjointed and difficult nature of the world. You can’t solely promote a fantasy version of the formal experience of living. There’s a necessity for a kind of balance in the field—90 percent of the fare for American audiences operates by those conventions and leaves the viewer satisfied in a very tidy, efficient way. They are unaltered in a way that is so disconnected with our daily experiences. Both The Comedy and Entertainment are in a long tradition of cinema flirting and pushing back against that impulse.
Entertainment is not a film that will appeal to everyone. Because some moviegoers have that expectation of films making them feel good, they are going to react angrily at movies like this. I suspect Alverson would welcome that reaction. The majority of movie studio fare is emotionless, just a series of dramatic formula plot points, but never anything that evokes honest emotion. It’s important that we have films like Entertainment and The Comedy because they remind us that the emotions that rise out of dissonance are some of the most real movies can make us feel.