A dark, surreal road trip brings out laughter and pain in this subversive, provocative anti-comedy.
Once a director gets classified as a provocateur, it’s a label that can be hard to shake off. Rick Alverson earned that title three years ago with The Comedy, his extremely uncomfortable (and funny) takedown of ironic detachment. In that film, Tim Heidecker played someone who thrived on being repulsive and confrontational, and it was easy to treat his character as a symbol for a specific, rotting part of today’s culture. Entertainment, Alverson’s follow-up, is another piece of provocation that will naturally get compared and contrasted with The Comedy; Heidecker returns to co-write the screenplay (and show up in a cameo), and Alverson continues showing off his knack for creating interactions that can have people crawling in agony towards the exits. But Entertainment provokes in a more insidious manner than The Comedy. If Alverson’s previous film focused on attacking character, stretching a protagonist’s “likability” to the breaking point and beyond (think of Heidecker’s character as less of an anti-hero and more of an asshole), then his latest work sets its sights on dismantling structure and narrative. That makes Entertainment feel more specific and less like a commentary or something symbolic, so it can be harder to glean what Alverson’s real intent might be with his increasingly surreal story. The results are murkier, for better and worse.
So it makes sense to cast someone like Gregg Turkington in the central role, a person whose career involves blurring the lines between reality and fiction. Turkington is known best as Neil Hamburger, a comedian who specializes in antihumour, taking familiar aspects of stand-up comedy and performance and aggressively going against expectations. But in recent years he’s also played “Gregg Turkington,” a version of himself that co-hosts the web series On Cinema, along with being involved in its spinoff Decker. In Entertainment, Turkington plays “The Comedian,” a stand-up travelling across the Mojave Desert with his act (an exact version of Turkington’s Neil Hamburger character). A young clown (Tye Sheridan) appears from time to time as an opener with his own baffling act, but The Comedian travels alone, making pit stops in between his performances to indifferent crowds. Alverson expectedly basks in every millisecond of painful silence that comes after Turkington/Hamburger barks out another one of his offensive jokes. Enjoying these scenes, and enjoying Entertainment as a whole, is largely a make or break affair; either you like Turkington’s brand of comedy or you don’t.
The majority of Entertainment plays out as a portrait of one man’s loneliness, with Turkington usually framed in a way that makes him look swallowed up by the desert landscapes (Lorenzo Hagerman’s cinematography is one of, if not the best parts of the film). His interactions with people are usually brief, except for a sequence where he visits a cousin (John C. Reilly) who’s too business-minded to comprehend what The Comedian’s purpose really is. A series of voicemails The Comedian makes to his daughter (who’s never seen or heard) throughout also provides a little bit of characterization, even if it feels like it’s there to make the character look like more of a desperate sad sack. It’s only until a meeting with a chromotherapist (Lotte Verbeek), followed by a brutal encounter with a drunk heckler (Amy Seimetz) that Alverson starts letting go of his formal grip on the film, providing one surreal encounter after another that escorts The Comedian from the purgatory of his desert tour to some sort of deranged, Lynchian hell. Levels of discomfort get ratcheted up considerably as The Comedian’s disdain of others, along with accepting his own pitiful existence, reach a fever pitch when he makes it to the final stop on his trip. Entertainment ends with the image of The Comedian laughing hysterically, which is both the character’s most expressive moment in the film and the point where Alverson lets go of the film’s connection to any form of reality. The Comedian’s eventual acceptance of his own existence as a punchline doesn’t land as strongly as it should, a result of Alverson’s tendency to create compelling scenes that stand on their own yet link together in an aimless fashion, but there’s something powerful in Entertainment’s ability to push down into the darkest depths without any hesitation. Alverson, whose singular style makes him one of US indie’s most important voices right now, confirms what The Comedy established three years ago: he’s a filmmaker brimming with potential, but for the time being someone to watch rather than behold.