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When Entertainment premiered at 2015’s Sundance Film Festival, the response it garnered was somewhat predictable. Numerous walkouts peppered its first showing, indicative of its uncomfortable confrontation. Certainly a test of patience, it’s a work that demands significant effort on the part of the audience. However, this is a recurring feature of the creatives involved: director and writer Rick Alverson, star and writer Gregg Turkington and writer Tim Heidecker. It’s easy to take against their approach, labelling it as pretentious and lazy. The sad truth is, that would be all too often accurate of others. In their hands, Entertainment is a prime example of the finest of its kind.
Many films of this type surround thin narrative and ideas in surreal smokescreen. Weak metaphor and trite symbolism become centre stage, leaving us trapped with useless dialogue and navel gazing. Of course, there’s plenty of cliched existentialism in Entertainment. It has a place when draped in the sincerity Turkington brings to his role as The Comedian. Everything comes from a place of twisted and undeniable reality, seeping awkwardly into every scene. Despite being an increasingly confusing journey of alienating oddities, it’s a true reflection of how the character perceives his surroundings, and how they perceive him. It’s given extra weight by the principle performance, which draws heavily on Turkington’s long career as “America’s Funnyman”, Neil Hamburger.
It opens, depressingly enough, in an airplane graveyard. On a low-key tour of small clubs and halls, The Comedian wastes his days away on dull local attractions. Ever lonely and quietly tormented, the stage would provide some solace if he didn’t so often perform to tiny and hostile audiences. Sporting a persona of bitter detachment, his crowds can hardly be blamed for taking against him either. He can’t make a connection with his equally subversive opening act, Eddie (Tye Sheridan) for that matter. Mystified by society around him, The Comedian is even uncomfortable with his own cousin John (John C. Reilly). The only relationship he pursues comes in the form of leaving his daughter empty voicemails he can’t seem to finish.
His performances are, in actuality, quite brilliant and reactionary parodies. Yet, after years of bad booking, blinkered audiences and self-imposed solitude, he begins to lose sight of self across a painfully slow breakdown. Outside of his shows he seems to be looking for something, anywhere. His performances become more muddled and shambolic. Even the existence of his daughter comes into question as his voicemails take desperate and far-fetched turns. It all comes to a head at a long-scheduled birthday party for The Celebrity (Tim Heidecker), an event The Comedian had been greatly looking forward to as a career opportunity. The film eventually leaves us as detached as him, and in some way more understanding of his own perspective.
Just like The Comedian’s own act, Entertainment is a reflection; a reaction. It relies on the established visage of normality as a springboard to its own expressions. This is what makes it refreshing, since so many of us are marginalised daily by the ebbs and flows of fashionable culture. Therefore, it speaks directly to the soul of those deeply disenfranchised. The vision it presents has led some to call it a vanity project, mostly because of its perceived self-indulgence. I instead see vivid artistic statements in every corner of its creation. Limited appeal renders films like this a rarity. That will only make it harder to digest in a bloated industry, but it doesn’t make it self-indulgent.
An extended hand is what I take from this film. I feel a solidarity with every one of my fellows who knows that out-of-place itch. It serves as a rallying cry to those sick of disposable entertainment and insincerity. There’s a lot more to it than that too, which is why it’s launched instantly into my favourite films list. For example, it’s far funnier than some dour reviews would have you believe. Add beautiful cinematic language, and a (mostly) gorgeous score, and the results are truly compelling. I simply couldn’t look away from the engaging performances and cinematography on display either. In the end, the niche appeal is both an advantage and great detriment to Entertainment. One of the best films of this miserable decade, it deserves far more praise and analysis than it’s given. From me, a solid five bags of popcorn and two sodas.