The Comedian: Film Review

The bisexual London love triangle fizzles where it should sizzle.

The moody British feature debut from Tom Shkolnik centers on a young man who sells insurance by day and tries his hand at stand-up by night.

An open-ended character study of a sexually conflicted young man in contemporary London, this low-budget drama from first-time feature director Tom Shkolnik  is interesting enough to engage both brain and emotions, but too flimsy to engage them for long. Though it touches on hot-button themes like bisexuality, homophobia and racism, The Comedian is more interested in the mood swings of its restless anti-hero, a post-millennial Benjamin Braddock with little of the mischievous wit or deadpan charm of The Graduate.  Opening in the UK later his month, it could play at further film festivals dedicated first features and LGBT themes. But in overseas markets, this low-key exercise in mumblecore naturalism feels too slight to attract more than niche theatrical interest.

Edward Hogg, an intense young actor best known for starring in the cult 2009 British comedy Bunny and The Bull, stars as Ed. A 32-year-old lost soul transplanted to London from the north of England, Ed has a miserable day job selling medical insurance over the telephone. By night, he struggles to establish a foothold on the city’s amateur stand-up comedy circuit. He is failing at both when a chance encounter with artist Nathan (Nathan Stewart-Jarrett) leads to a passionate affair. But muddled, evasive Ed also harbors unspoken feelings for his French musician girlfriend Elisa (Elisa Lasowski), creating tension and confusion in everybody. Mostly himself.

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Sticking within puritanical rules similar to Danish cinema’s Dogma 95 manifesto, Shkolnik and his cast shot The Comedian without a script, assembling a fragmentary plot from long improvisation sessions. Each scene was then captured in just one take, mostly in public locations and available light. This austere method produces a raw, random, rough-edged naturalism that is both strength and weakness. While these sketchy encounters and half-heard conversations initially have the emotionally truthful texture of observational documentary, by the end they feel like a stylistic gimmick in place of dramatic substance. Technique eclipses story.

The quiet desperation of unsuccessful stand-up comics is a potentially rich theme, but The Comedian pays little more than passing lip service to its title. We see only short bursts of Ed’s stage routine, a loud and clumsy expression of his need for validation, before the film forgets it altogether. And while it is a heartening measure of progress to see a biracial gay relationship depicted onscreen as a matter-of-fact background detail, this does not excuse Shkolnik his lack of depth of focus. Despite boasting a strong lo-fi aesthetic and a capable cast, this intriguing debut ultimately proves as elusive and frustratingly non-committal as its main character.

Production Companies: Trinity Filmed Entertainment, The Bureau, BFI Film Fund, Celluloid Dreams

Producers: Bertrand Faivre, Dan McCulloch.

Director: Tom Shkolnik 

Writer: Tom Shkolnik

Starring: Edward Hogg, Nathan Stewart-Jarrett, Elisa Lasowski

Cinematographer: Benjamin Kracun

Editor: Pierre Haberer

Sales company: Celluloid Dreams, Paris

Rated 15 (UK), 80 minutes