Rick Alverson’s Entertainment is a fully realised and extremely accomplished translation of Gregg Turkington’s Neil Hamburger character to the big screen – a rumination on decay, filtered through the tale of a hack comedian who progressively crumbles under the weight of his obsolescence in contemporary comedy, which prioritises its incisive commentary on the entertainment industry over the need to be broadly entertaining. The film, which marks Alverson’s second collaboration with Tim Heidecker and Turkington following 2012’s The Comedy, conforms to Alverson’s signature style: a seemingly simple narrative requiring viewers to extract an unsettling deeper meaning which is defiantly obfuscated. As it stands, Alverson’s endeavor is a near perfect execution of its aims, revealing itself to be his strongest film to date.
Entertainment follows an unnamed comedian (Gregg Turkington) as he tours dive bars in the Mojave desert, mentally deteriorating as he loses himself in a sea of bizarre encounters and is confronted by the shattering of his self-image. The film, which follows a fairly traditional narrative structure despite more unconventional formal elements, plays best as tragedy: The Comedian is considerably less conscious of his shortcomings than his audience is and this leads to his ultimate undoing. His only crime is a poor sense of humour and a minor dose of self-delusion, which makes his fall from grace (if you can call performing to small audiences of disinterested alcoholics “grace”) all the more crushing to observe.
Alverson’s film moves beyond a simple exploration of misplaced ego, additionally serving as a study of authenticity, particularly within the entertainment industry. The Comedian’s ‘act’ is presented to us as an unsavoury imitation of life, a schtick which isn’t palatable at all to his audience and is at the heart of his lack of success. He sees it as maintaining his artistic integrity, sticking to the same hacky techniques likely developed during one of the many comedy booms of decades gone by because it’s all he has left in his life. The Comedian’s greatest pitfall is shown to be his blind conformity to an ‘authentic self’, unable to compete in an industry where his rivals convey false, finely-crafted, and idealised versions of their personality. One particularly biting scene sees The Comedian talking to a fellow comic backstage in what seems like a genuine conversation; shortly after, though, the other performer goes on stage and repeats The Comedian’s anecdote verbatim, shattering the fleeting illusion of any sort of authentic human connection.
This notion of artificiality extends beyond The Comedian’s persona and interpersonal relationships, reflected in the environment around him. During his travels, The Comedian makes stop-offs at a number of man-made tourist attractions: an aeronautic graveyard, a manufactured American frontier town, the cindered corpse of a flipped car in the serene, natural surroundings of the desert. As he travels across the country, becoming immersed in these artificial and inauthentic worlds, we are bluntly reminded of the artificiality of so much of our own interactions and experiences. Stunningly, The Comedian remains difficult to empathize with in the face of all of this because of how horrible and pathetic his act is. We’re talking about a performer who can’t get his daughter to speak to him, whose one true desire is to tell jokes that are offensive for the sake of being both offensive and universally unfunny (at least, in a traditional, non-ironic sense), a person who – despite years of experience in the industry – lacks the nuance of fine-tuned delivery to even provide the facade of a functioning performance.
Entertainment will mean vastly different things to different viewers; those with a vast knowledge of Alverson and Turkington’s output are given all of the tools to be in on a more specific joke: we witness a director who specializes in one mode of extreme anti-humour (bringing a stark vision of reality to unsuspecting audiences) tackle a literal realisation of the Neil Hamburger persona, removing the potent sense of irony that make Turkington’s Neil Hamburger sets so outrageously funny. Some of the ‘comedy’ in Alverson’s project comes from the way in which he draws extensively on the minutiae of old Hamburger sets, hinting at elements of the character that Turkington hasn’t tackled in years (Hamburger’s ex-wife, his daughter etc.), with a clear influence drawn from Hamburger’s 1996 album America’s Funnyman.1 It’s almost as though Alverson, Turkington, and Heidecker have treated every Hamburger joke as though it’s part of a greater canon, crafting the filmic persona out of hints dropped by Turkington throughout his entire career. In that sense, then, it’s the perfect Neil Hamburger movie, one that reflects on what the character would be like without the distance irony gives us: a tired, washed up hack with nothing going for him on stage and no humour or joy to his external life.
While there’s a deep pleasure to be drawn from the understanding these ‘in-jokes’, audiences unaware of Turkington’s previous work as Hamburger aren’t left out in the cold. Entertainment also exists as a fascinating longform study of decay, a rumination on the death of art and practice, whether it be the decommissioning of oil drilling equipment, the retiring of aircraft, or literally – as the film progresses – The Comedian’s ‘comedy’.
The film is also pleasurable beyond its thematic grounding; of particular note is Lorenzo Hagerman’s (Heli) stunning cinematography which easily ranks amongst the best of the year, perfectly encapsulating the sparse infinity of the Mojave desert. While there are a few strong cameos, particularly from indie favourites John C. Reilly as The Comedian’s cousin and Amy Seimetz as a disgruntled spectator, the strongest performance comes from Turkington himself, who impressively trainwrecks his sets throughout to dramatic, rather than comedic, effect. That the sets are dour performances of his comedic Neil Hamburger act makes Turkington doubly impressive here. Also of note is Alverson’s Gaspar Noe-esque experimentation with color and mood in the film’s second and third acts in sequences that begin to mimic the disorienting tone of the final third of Riley Stearns’ Faults. The filmmakers complement a gamut of surreal imagery with visually straining cinematographic and color grading experiments, which all act to lend an insight into The Comedian’s degrading psyche.
Alverson and Turkington’s collaboration is extremely successful, turning in a film almost unparalleled in experimental independent cinema this year. In one respect, Entertainment is an easy pick for Neil Hamburger fans (especially those who’ve delved extensively into his back catalogue) but to shoehorn it as “the Neil Hamburger movie” does it a disservice. Much like Alverson’s last film, Entertainment is an uncomfortable and vital piece of social commentary that simultaneously challenges our expectations of narrative cinema and conforms to its most prominent formal tropes.
Note: Entertainment is yet to be released in Australia and appears to have no distribution at present. The film is now purchasable through US video-on-demand services.
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