I hated Rick Alverson’s last movie, The Comedy. Despised it. It was like sitting in a room with an irritating child who kept poking me in the ribs. That is, I am fairly certain, what Alverson wanted me to feel, and so while I hated the movie I also admired its deep commitment to being unlikable. It wasn’t for me, but you have to appreciate a film that can purposefully evoke such loathing.
That’s why I almost didn’t go see Alverson’s latest, Entertainment. Instead of Tim and Eric this time he’s working with Gregg Turkington (aka Neil Hamburger), another alt-comedy type (by which I mean people who probably hate being called alt-comedians), and I expected more of the same, just with Turkington’s style. But Entertainment is very, very different from The Comedy, and where that film was like a constant bamboo spike under my fingernails, Entertainment is like having your nose rubbed in profound human despair almost two hours.
And I liked it.
Turkington plays an unnamed comic (he actually has a couple of names during the course of the film, including Neil and Gene) who is doing a tour of shitty desert dump towns to audiences who barely pay attention and who find his persona - a greasy dispenser of acidic one liners in a tux - absolutely baffling. He is unmoored from the world around him, gazing blankly through his big glasses, only coming alive and shouting out his hate at the world when in character. There’s a lot of him in hotel hallways, driving in the desert, having uncomfortable encounters (Michael Cera as a guy looking for a hook-up in a rest stop toilet), and slowly breaking down.
Entertainment is shot in scope, giving the desert vistas breathtaking room and allowing Turkington to often be small. There’s a perverseness in shooting a movie as small as this with that aspect ratio, but it feels so right, and it allows the edges of the frame to have tons of empty space.
The film is filled with empty spaces, but along the way the comedian bumps into other characters. Tye Sheridan is a clown who is on the bill with him, and he seems to be in much better shape, mentally and spiritually, than our lead. John C Reilly plays his cousin, a successful man who is kind of a plain old dope - in that special John C Reilly way. And Jesus Lizard’s David Yow even shows up as the host of the most fucked up party I may have ever seen on screen.
There’s a lot that’s grim about Entertainment, and a lot that is gross - there is one scene involving a baby being born that is about as soul-destroying and upsetting as anything you’ll see in a movie this year - but the film is mostly about wearing you down, with brief interludes of great Neil Hamburger material. Less patient audiences will be ground down by the bleakness, but I found it all to be thrilling in its sand-blasted ugliness.
Entertainment is a film that’s about our relationship to our entertainment - it opens with a comedy show in a jail, ends with a surreal journey into a Mexican sitcom and throughout finds Turkington either on stage or being peered at through glass. People are always looking in at him: the only person he truly attempts to reach out to, his daughter, won't answer the phone. In one sequence (possibly a hallucination - the course of reality gets sketchy) he’s sitting in a hotel room alone watching a woman violently sob on television, just a shot of her head, looking at the camera, in absolute emotional agony. That, says the movie, is entertainment.