Punching the Clown -- Film Review

Familiar show-business satire is enlivened by genuinely witty, off-kilter humor.

Judging by the autobiographically inspired “Punching the Clown,” if you can’t make it in show business, then you might as well make a film about not making it in show business. Co-written by and starring Henry Philips, this satirical portrait of the Los Angeles music scene lacks the comic oomph necessary to reach broad audiences, but it could reach some sort of cult following, especially those familiar with its milieu.

Philips plays a variation of himself: a comedic singer-songwriter who travels the country picking up gigs wherever he can, from bars to the occasional pizza parlor. After a disastrous show in which a vagina-themed song doesn’t exactly go over big with a Christian-dominated audience, he decides to head to Los Angeles, crashing on his brother’s couch while pursuing a record deal.

His brother (Matt Walker), a struggling actor who supplements his income by playing a Batman-like character at children’s birthday parties, hooks him up with his agent (a very amusing Ellen Ratner), who seems convinced that he can be the next big thing. The fact that she describes him as “James Taylor on smack” is but one indication that her ambitions exceed her grasp.

She does manage to land him a gig at a local coffee house, where he strikes up a budding romance with cute barista Becca (Audrey Siegel). And through a series of bizarre circumstances, he actually gets signed to a record label by a typically obnoxious A&R exec (Guilford Adams).

But Henry's newfound success doesn’t last, as an offhand comment about a bagel becomes fuel for a tabloid-style media frenzy in which he gets pilloried as a neo-Nazi.

Although its sendup of L.A.’s shallow, self-absorbed show business culture is not exactly revelatory, the film does deliver solid laughs, many of them thanks to Philips’ wittily provocative, surprisingly hostile confessional ditties. The actor-singer also has an appealing screen presence, displaying a mild, poker-faced haplessness that makes you identify with his character as he suffers through his increasingly outlandish travails.

Opens: Friday, Oct. 22 (Viens Films)
Cast: Henry Phillips, Ellen Ratner, Wade Kelley, Matt Walker, Audrey Siegel, Guilford Adams
Director-producer-editor: Gregori Viens
Screenwriters: Gregori Viens, Henry Phillips
Director of photography: Ian Campbell
Music: Henry Phillips
Production designers: Azra Bano Ali, Barclay Wright, Tim Harmston
No rating, 91 minutes