'Entertainment': Sundance Review

Courtesy of Sundance International Film Festival
Intentionally awful comedian Neil Hamburger gets his version of Lenny

Is he still a sad clown if nobody's laughing?

Continuing his investigation of the use of irony in film titles — he'll likely remain the field's leading scholar until Todd Solondz decides to deliver More Happiness Rick Alverson follows up the misanthropic depression of The Comedy with Entertainment, a look at the dreary ways an intentionally bad stand-up comedian fills his downtime while on tour. A cinematic suicide note unspooling against parched Southwestern landscapes, the film should find support from fans of star Gregg Turkington, whose anti-comedy persona Neil Hamburger has flummoxed audiences for over two decades. Beyond that cult, it will be a harder sell.

Turkington plays some version of himself here: A potbellied, unsmiling schlub grinding out a meager living through gigs in prisons, honky-tonks and other nowhere joints. He exaggerates his defects on stage, greasing down his comb-over and donning an old tux to cough up hacky jokes in a phlegmy, grating voice. (Comparisons to Tony Clifton come close to the mark, but Tony had more joie de vivre.) Audiences rarely laugh, and if they heckle, Hamburger responds with insults so foul any premise of comedy is lost. (For the film's audiences, though, these "that's so terrible it's kind of hilarious" scenes are the movie's most amusing.) After each gig, Gregg finds himself alone in some cruddy motel room, calling a daughter who always lets him go to voicemail and staring joylessly at Mexican TV shows.

See more The Scene at Sundance Film Festival 2015

Greg's character arc is a straight line angled slightly south, and in the absence of plot Alverson follows him through episodic encounters: Most significantly, he spends time with a long-lost cousin (John C. Reilly), an entrepreneurial farmer who tries to be tactful while suggesting ways the Hamburger routine could be smoothed out to appeal to "all four quadrants" of the potential audience. Amy Seimetz and Michael Cera appear in doom-laced cameos, the latter starring in one of two public restroom encounters that may prove to be the most unsettling toilet scenes at this year's fest. The opening dialogue in the Cera encounter is so ambiguously icky that Alverson can only cut away before something happens, lest he fail to deliver on the setup.

The film is true to its bleak vision throughout, but Alverson's observational approach served him better in 2011's New Jerusalem, where instead of portraying a singular, manufactured misfit he (with co-screenwriter/actor Colm O'Leary) created two believable men whose experiences of anguish and spirituality might have been playing out in any of a thousand small American towns. That (completely overlooked) film demonstrated a clear and patient humanism. Despite its apparently sincere identification with its protagonist, Entertainment feels like a sick joke.

Production company: Nomadic Independence Pictures

Cast: Gregg Turkington, John C. Reilly, Tye Sheridan, Michael Cera, Amy Seimetz, Lotte Verbeek

Director: Rick Alverson

Screenwriters: Rick Alverson, Gregg Turkington, Tim Heidecker

Producers: George Rush, Ryan Lough, Ryan Zacarias, Brooke Bernard, Alex Lipschultz, Patrick Hibler

Executive producers: Champ Bennett, Shaked Berenson, Jonathan Cargill, Patrick Ewald, Larry Fessenden, Walter S. Hall, Dave Hansen, Andrew Logan, Johnny Mac, Priyanka Mattoo, Armando Montelongo, David J. Phillips, Henry S. Rosenthal, Ben Swanson, Chris Swanson, Darius Van Arman

Director of photography: Lorenzo Hagerman

Production designer: Bart Mangrum

Editors: Michael Taylor, Rick Alverson

Music: Robert Donne

Sales: John Sloss, Cinetic Media

No rating, 102 minutes