The Apatovian formula is simple: Pluck an up-and-coming comic from the small leagues, support them while they write their own darkly funny but authentically heartfelt semi-autobiographical comedy then produce and/or direct the final format. This method has led to many successes throughout Judd Apatow’s oeuvre, including Amy Schumer’s Trainwreck, Kumail Nanjiani’s The Big Sick, Pete Davidson’s The King of Staten Island and Lena Dunham’s Girls. All of these works have one major theme in common: They’re self-flagellating adult coming-of-age stories. Whether the protagonists’ ultimate goal is romantic love or self-love, the rewards remain high. After all, it’s only their personal dignity at stake.
Steve Byrne’s The Opening Act is an Apatovian-style comedy without the Apatovian magic. Written and directed by Byrne (Sullivan & Son) based on his own early years as a comedian, the film stars Jimmy O. Yang as an embryonic stand-up navigating his first real gig opening for a once-prominent aging comic. Lacking tangible emotional depth, and, frankly, much laugh-out-loud humor at all, The Opening Act is surprisingly underdeveloped for an intimate story about ambition and sacrifice. While it offers firsthand, unglamorous details of life as a working comedian, focusing on the resilience required to grow professional callouses, it ultimately stalls as an adult coming-of-age story because we get no sense of the hero’s inner life.
Yang, one of my favorite emerging actors from the last few years, has a bone-dry, cantankerous wit that has helped him craft memorable supporting characters like ruthless Jian-Yang (Silicon Valley), spoiled Bernard (Crazy Rich Asians) and grouchy-cute Dr. Kaifang (Space Force). Truthfully, Yang is by far the best part of the otherwise painful Space Force.
He’s affable, even alluring, in The Opening Act but has little to gnaw on: His Will Chu is written as a square. He’s got a day job, a girlfriend and a moonlighting gig at local comedy venues. (“The only silver lining is that I can’t possibly hang myself in a cubicle,” he says of his paper-pushing role.) I understand why a low-level insurance agent with some fledgling talent harbors dreams of stardom, but you never get a sense of the why beyond Will reminiscing about how much he loved stand-up specials growing up. I mean, so did I! So what exactly drives him to this particular calling?
When Will’s buddy on the circuit (Ken Jeong) offers him a chance to emcee over a long weekend for a well-connected club manager, he rage-quits his prosaic job and heads to Pennsylvania, never once worrying about how he’s going to pay his bills. He’s thrilled to meet his idol, touring comedian Billy G. (Cedric the Entertainer, warm and welcome), an impatient “seen it all, done it all” grand seigneur twenty years passed his peak. Will quickly learns his place when he repeats the man’s signature catchphrase “Ohhh, Billy!” back to him in a regretful moment of fanboyishness.
Will increasingly struggles with self-confidence throughout the interminable four days, wilting like an unloved flower whenever he bombs. Despite his years at open mics and local suburban clubs, he still doesn’t know how to wreck a heckler. He can’t see the “everything is copy” humor in completely flubbing his first radio appearance. He has trouble shaking off determined giggle groupies, which eventually leads to his personal nadir cowering under a trailer while some carouser services her cop boyfriend. (In this film, women are either compassionate nothings or desperate slags. Even Will’s thinly-developed relationship with Debby Ryan’s flinty-voiced Jen just reinforces his colorlessness.) After a day or two away, he’s just crumpled petals.
Byrne packs his cast with in-crowd comedians such as Bill Burr, Alex Moffat, Whitney Cummings, Iliza Shlesinger and Felipe Esparza, although their appearances are largely cameos. Cedric the Entertainer has the ripest part as a popular performer still willing to hoof it to every no-name joint in every no-name city just to make his daily bread. Billy’s brief forays into mentorship are the heartiest moments in the film, the elder comedian reminding this kid he needs to shape an identity — hone a voice! — if he expects an audience to flock to him. “But the thing about stand-up, son, you listening? Is that you have the chance to be better today than you was yesterday.”
Yang charms during his brighter moments on stage, reminding me of the best bits in his energetic 2020 standup special Good Deal. Too bad Byrne provides few peeks into Will’s soul. We learn in the last ten minutes of the film that his character is a double orphan (his mom passed when he was a child, as we witness in the dialogue-less opening montage, and his father apparently died a few years before the present). Byrne could have mined mountains of emotional wealth from this trauma, exploring, say, the isolation of abandonment, the healing power of laughter during times of grief or even the secret relief of being discharged from a life of familial pressure and responsibility. In fact, Billy implores Will to find his pain and use it, but the director doesn’t seem to follow his own advise. We know Will is from Ohio, but where, exactly, is he coming from?
Byrne, who is partially of Korean descent, allows his on-screen doppelganger to joke here and there about being Asian, but we never get a sense of what challenges Will might face as a Chinese American in a predominantly white creative field known for its take-no-prisoners hazing. Perhaps Byrne wants to keep his hour-and-a-half story light, but it’s so airy it practically floats away.
Cast: Jimmy O. Yang, Cedric the Entertainer, Alex Moffat, Ken Jeong, Debby Ryan
Written & Directed by: Steve Byrne
Produced by: Vince Vaughn, Peter Billingsley
Opens: October 16th