'Cracked Up': Film Review

Cracked Up - Publicity Still 2- H 2019
Cracked Up/Healing From Trauma Film
A harrowing tale of recovery.

Michelle Esrick's documentary chronicles comedian Darrell Hammond's efforts to overcome the lingering emotional effects of childhood trauma.

As he proved during his 14-year-stint on Saturday Night Live, Darrell Hammond is adept at playing any kind of character. And as the new documentary Cracked Up illustrates all too vividly and movingly, the one character he was truly uncomfortable embodying was himself.

Michelle Esrick's film (for which Chris Hegedus and the late D.A. Pennebaker served as co-producers) begins with a scene in which Hammond revisits his childhood home, located on the idyllically named Wisteria Drive in Melbourne, Florida. The house is nondescript, looking like any small suburban dwelling. But for Hammond when he was growing up, it was a virtual house of horrors, the place where his emotionally troubled mother inflicted physical and emotional abuse on him.

The result was that Hammond spent many years of his life in the throes of various addictions and emotional turmoil that manifested itself in such behaviors as self-cutting. Already a heavy drinker as a teenager, he was diagnosed with schizophrenia and manic depression when he was 27 years old. It was the first of many misdiagnoses throughout his life, until a suicide attempt brought him under the care of a psychiatrist who unlocked his repressed childhood traumas and led him on the path to recovery.

The documentary is loosely structured around Hammond's efforts to adapt his 2011 memoir, God, If You're Not Up There, I'm F*cked, into a one-man stage show. But the film is more wide-ranging than that, also chronicling his 14-year stint as an SNL castmember (his record-breaking run was later surpassed by that of Kenan Thompson). We see numerous clips of Hammond's hilarious impersonations of such figures as Bill Clinton, Sean Connery and Chris Matthews. Sitting in a makeup chair for a guest appearance on the show, he explains that he has a particular advantage when it comes to playing various celebrities, saying that his "face is so bland" that he can look like anybody.

There are also clips from talk show appearances when he discusses his condition in a serious manner, and footage from his stand-up act in which he uses it for comic fodder. To learn that his drink of choice was absinthe explains a lot about his self-destructive tendencies. More disturbingly, there's a clip of one of his SNL appearances in which fresh scars from his self-cutting are plainly visible. Producer Lorne Michaels comments on his attempts to protect Hammond from his inner demons as much as he possibly could. But his efforts weren't always successful; Hammond had to be taken from one of the show's rehearsals in a straitjacket.

To his credit, Hammond isn't interested in making sure that he always comes off well, as evidenced by the film's inclusion of a scene in which he reacts with petulant anger to a handler's efforts to get him to wrap up one speaking event so he can get to the next one.

Throughout the documentary which features Diane Warren's powerful original song "Hide the Hurt," performed by Macy Gray —  Hammond relates the story of his past traumas and current struggles with honesty and humor. That he was able to perform so brilliantly even while suffering so deeply is a testament to his tremendous will, not to mention his acting ability. In an interview, a childhood friend admits that when Hammond first told him of the abuse he suffered, he thought he was making it up.

A moving and powerful portrait of trauma and recovery, Cracked Up will likely prove as therapeutic for many viewers as it clearly is for Hammond himself.

Production companies: Ripple Effect Films, Healing from Trauma Film Production, Artemis Rising Foundation
Distributor: Abramorama
Director: Michelle Esrick

Producers: Michelle Esrick, David Becker
Executive producers: Regina K. Scully, Geralyn White Dreyfous, Becky Newhall, Laurie Benenson, Bill Benenson

Directors of photography: Thorsten Thielow, Daniel B. Gold, Chris Hegedus, Tom Bergmann, Joan Churchill, Zac Nicholson, Martina Radwan, Kristen Johnson
Editors: Mark Juergens, Adam Yaffe

Composer: David Robbins

98 minutes