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AUSTIN — As consolation prizes in the Tonight Show contest go, this probably ranks somewhere below a big pile of severance cash. But Conan O’Brien should take some satisfaction in the thought that Jay Leno will never earn as much laughter in half an hour as he and his crew does in the first third of Conan O’Brien Can’t Stop.
To be fair, O’Brien’s TV talk show was rarely if ever this full-tilt hilarious, either, which might have something to do with why he seems to have so many more supporters than the program had viewers. But Can’t Stop is as entertaining as any showbiz doc in recent memory and could draw a nice audience of Team Coco followers in a limited theatrical release.
Starting with a quick and vivid recap of the Tonight showdown (one making good use of the computer-animated re-enactment style now fashionable on Taiwanese newscasts), Rodman Flender’s doc picks up just as the comedian hatches the idea of a concert tour to fill the months when he’s legally prohibited from having a TV show.
We watch as O’Brien and his management set up online ticket sales and are shocked when major venues sell out within minutes — putting on a bit of pressure to decide just what the show’s content will be. Marathon writing sessions and band rehearsals ensue, and Flender opens O’Brien up for workplace lawsuits by filming him tackling the occasional member of his writing staff.
Most of the abuse isn’t physical: The boss needles employees with jibes they can’t help but laugh at and is particularly relentless with his assistant Sona Movsesian, whose easy chemistry with him provides an enjoyable emotional continuity for the film.
Sublimated via humor or not, the performer is clearly working through some anger. O’Brien comes clean in informal interviews, admitting how furious he is about NBC’s rejection. But angry or not, the nonstop improvisations we see here — as he brainstorms material for the tour, tries to survive meet-and-greets and frets about his performances backstage — are clearly fueled by a kind of manic near-desperation, a sink-or-swim career moment.
Happily, O’Brien kept head above water for the tour, and we see just enough of the actual show — from the paisley replica of Eddie Murphy’s leather Raw outfit to an upper-middle-class revision of “Polk Salad Annie” — to make casual fans wish they’d scored a ticket.
The film doesn’t concoct a Comedian-style conceit in order to convince us to watch a movie about someone we can see every weeknight for free, and it doesn’t have to. Conan O’Brien Can’t Stopn ot only documents a crisis survived but distills all the reasons people thought this guy should have a talk show in the first place.
Venue: South by Southwest Film Festival, Headliners section
Production Company: Pariah Production
Director/director of photography/editor: Rodman Flender
Producers: Gavin Polone, Rachel Griffin
Executive producer: Kathy Landsberg
Sales: Liesl Copland, WME Global
No rating, 88 minutes
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