There’s a terrible joy for me Rick Alverson’s work. The director is responsible for the closest moments I’ve ever felt to true “perversion” in cinema. You squirm and cackle and recoil in horror, not from the film itself, but from the mirror it holds up to your criminal visage. Criminal. That’s the word for it. Rick Alverson doesn’t make movies, he makes crimes.
Alverson comes from the Jagjaguwar record label, where he released seven albums. Starting in 2010, he began stretching out in feature films with works that explored the immigrant experience in America from a detached vantage point, and often including labelmate musicians in his work. The breakthrough came in 2012 when he directed The Comedy — a film about an aging Williamsburg hipster who ignores/tortures his family while spending his days playing pranks on regular people (which also come off as a form of minimalist torture.)
The Comedy extracts an award season worthy performance out of anti-comedian Tim Heidecker and pulls an inversion of his Tim & Eric personae by placing his ridiculous prankster nonsense in the middle of a brutally sad reality where the audience is no longer a camera aimed at a greenscreen, it is an audience that is implicated in this cruelty just by witnessing without preventing. Joined by regular cohort Eric Wareheim and LCD Soundsystem frontman James Murphy (!) the team inflicts street-level misery on those they encounter through a mix of classist disdain and empathetic disconnect.
Did you watch that clip? Imagine an extra hour of that, and thirty minutes of some death/rapish stuff on top. It’s an embarrassing implication of an entire time and culture, but more importantly, it’s really, really good. It’s frustratingly beautiful, and Alverson knows the exact moments to lull you into something genuinely funny before pulling the twist that makes you want to cover your eyes, but never leave. Just like these characters, you have to see where this is headed, even if it’s nowhere.
Which brings us to the new film, Entertainment. If you’re even tangentially familiar with “Infinite Jest”, it’s pretty easy to see this work as equally destructive.
Alverson’s new work follows real world standup comedian Neil Hamburger (Gregg Turkington) on a tour through various shit venues in the Mojave. The film bills itself as a bleak surrealist dark comedy on par with dropping shock insult comic Tony Clifton into the middle of Zabriskie Point. If you’re familiar with those references, it’s a difficult summary to one up.
Hamburger, whose set is so notoriously (intentionally) noxious that it has inspired entire stadiums to chant “asshole” at him, opens this tour with a performance in a men’s jail, where his opening act of a clown is able to rouse the incarcerated audience in ways a sweaty drunk lounge singer never will.
The Southwest tour gets even more terrible from here, as Hamburger performs for smaller crowds in more dangerous venues until the threat of violence against him becomes almost inescapable. Along the way, he fills his days in various tourist activities of increasing darkness, including a gas field and an airplane graveyard. By night, he calls a daughter that may not exist, and suffers the friendship of a rich relative (John C. Reilly) who keeps trying to ask the aging performer what his business model for all this nonsense is leading toward.
The film doesn’t brutalize you with a hammer like The Comedy, rather it slowly scratches at your skin until you realize you’ve been bleeding for thirty minutes. More than once, I howled with laughter before realizing I was crying. This isn’t an exaggeration; this is a cinematic crime. It’s so goddamned good.
There’s a personal element for me, as a standup comedian myself who has shared the stage with Hamburger, but who, more importantly, has toured this region and felt the brutal sting of playing some desert community trailer park where you knew before taking the stage that no one wanted you there. I expressed a genuine fear back at the film’s announcement that it might be the kind of thing that would convince me to quit doing comedy, and, christ, it comes dangerously close.
If Up in the Air is about the corporate side of travel loneliness, Entertainment is about the far worse comedy equivalent, where money is never a guarantee and days or weeks can go by without a genuine human interaction— all fueled by booze and checking a phone for people who are so far away they might as well not exist at all.
When the film hits its more formless third act, the depression and cruel beauty warp together into the kind of filmic expression not often seen in the mainstream outside of the works of David Lynch. There’s an ever-present threat of violence that seeps through the screen, whether the story itself would ever witness any non-existential danger. There will be blood, but it might just be in your head.
Entertainment is a must see film. Not just as a tribute to a little known vile character that has been performing since 1993, and not just as the best film I’ve ever seen about touring standup business, but because you’re not likely to ever see anything of its ilk again. This is the darkest a comedy can become before it just becomes darkness.
The film has limited theatrical release in NYC and L.A. It is available for streaming on all major services.