'And Punching the Clown': SXSW Review

And Punching the Clown Still - H 2016
Courtesy of SXSW

And Punching the Clown Still - H 2016

A likeable but underwhelming portrait of showbiz humiliation.

Can Henry Phillips ride failure all the way to the top?

A sequel to a movie that got a tiny release in 2010 after winning an audience award the previous year at Slamdance, Gregori Viens' And Punching the Clown observes the efforts of a songwriting humorist named Henry Phillips — played by songwriting humorist Henry Phillips — to build a career in a world that prefers laughing at him to laughing with him. Genial if very rarely hilarious, the sad-sack pic will rely for attention on supporting turns by Sarah Silverman, J.K. Simmons and Tig Notaro, but seems likely to reach only slightly more viewers than its predecessor.

A weary vet of the stand-up comedy circuit, Phillips has steered clear of Los Angeles since the humiliating events of the first film. But when big-shot TV producer Jay Warren (Simmons) expresses interest in his life story, he bites the bullet and returns, crashing with old friend Jillian (Notaro) and her partner Zoe (Stephanie Allyne). Warren comes to see a gig that ends terribly after just a minute or two — Phillips walks off after getting heckled — and it turns out this is just what the producer wants: A "Sisyphus-meets-Charlie-Brown" whose pathetic attempts to eke out a life in showbiz can give viewers reasons to feel better about their own lives.

TV execs like the idea, but sour on it when their social-media gurus can't make a video of Phillips performing go viral. Then an audience member films him falling off the stage, and a YouTube mega-fail turns him into the kind of hot property the NOWW Network can get behind.

Less a satire of today's dumbed-down media environment than it might appear, the picture is actually coming from almost exactly the same place as its fictional TV producer: It's all about watching how far Phillips can fall without giving up on his, for lack of a less ambitious word, dream. The perpetual loser gets his car towed (prompting a genuinely funny sequence involving a taxi dispatcher); plays clubs that can't accommodate more than one microphone; and (implausibly) manages even to flub an attempt to help his lesbian friends get pregnant. Henry recounts these stories to Silverman, who plays a sympathetic DJ interviewing him on air. (The film saves its funniest embarrassment for last, taking a gag that would have had a lot of impact near the start of the story and rather unwisely saving it for a closing flashback.)

So much is dumped on this poor protagonist that moviegoers may feel guilty for asking, "maybe he should work more on his material?" About half of Phillips' songs here are pretty funny; some would make you grin if a friend made them up on the spot at a party. That's a thin repertoire to hang a career on — much less two feature films.

Venue: South by Southwest Film Festival (24 Beats per Second)
Production companies: Permut Presentations, Tilted Windmill Productions, Whitewater Films
Cast: Henry Phillips, Sarah Silverman, Tig Notaro, Stephanie Allyne, J.K. Simmons, Jim Jefferies, Ellen Ratner, Mike Judge, Mark Cohen, Clifton Collins, Michaela Watkins, Wayne Federman, Adam Nee
Director: Gregori Viens
Screenwriters: Henry Phillips, Gregori Viens
Producers: David Permut, Matt Ratner, Rick Rosenthal, Jim Hart, Arun Kumar
Executive producers: Luca Costa, Atif Malik, Robert J. Harley, Chris Mangano, Bert Kern, Nick Morton, Howard Barish, Sean McEwen, Brandon J. Hogan, Alan Pao, Luke Daniels, Deborah Ratner, Adam Brawer, David Beitchman, Henry Phillips, Gregori Viens
Director of photography: Bryce Fortner
Production designer: Jodi Ginnever
Costume designer: Sarah Trost
Editor: Michael R. Miller
Composer: Henry Phillips
Casting director: Eyde Belasco
Sales: Meghan Oliver, Benjamin Weiss, Paradigm

Not rated, 94 minutes