by Josh Spanninga
In the past few years Rick Alverson has made a career out of subverting audience’s expectations and creating uncomfortable, confrontational films that experiment and defy conventional narratives. His latest film, Entertainment, finds Alverson managing to do all of this in what can be described as his most mature, well-rounded film yet.
Gregg Turkington stars as a struggling, nameless comedian wandering through a barren landscape of deserts, obscure tourist traps, and third-rate gigs. Offstage the comedian character is a slinking husk of a man staring into the abyss, drink in hand. Throughout the entire film he ambles aimlessly through the desert, drifting across bleak terrain while trying to revive his career, connect with his estranged daughter, and hold onto his sanity. Simply put he’s a pitiful mess in the midst of an existential crisis.
Of course onstage this nameless comedian takes on the persona of his alter ego, a hoarse, brash entertainer with a special affinity for tastelessness (not to mention the greasiest comb-over of all time). This onstage persona is an interpretation of Turkington’s own standup routine he performs under the guise of Neil Hamburger. Dressed in gauche velvet suits and cradling multiple drinks in his arms, Neil grumbles insults at the audience, tells off pace, raunchy jokes, and goes on tirades defending the honorable profession of the entertainer (at one point he proclaims “That’s what it’s all about folks, having fun and forgetting your problems. And you people have a lot of problems.”). In the film the character of Neil has more personality than the performer who portrays him, though it does tend to earn him the scorn of many audience members. His coarse brand of anti-humor fits the mood of the film perfectly, and his act is as surreal and discomfiting as the world he lives in.
John C. Reilly also makes an appearance in the film as Neil’s cousin John, a well-intentioned but utterly unhelpful comrade who, when drunk, evokes elements of Reilly’s Dr. Steve Brule character. Michael Cera even shows up in an appropriately awkward public restroom scene.
For a film filled with so many memorable characters, Alverson manages to relentlessly evoke feelings of isolation and loneliness. Time after time Neil manages to alienate those around him, and even when surrounded by people he simply stares off into the distance. On his group outings to airplane graveyards and abandoned oil fields he always strays from the group. In such scenes the camera zooms out, displaying Neil’s silhouette against desolate landscapes. In what are consistently the most heartbreaking scenes Neil leaves depressing voicemails on his unresponsive daughter’s cell phone (“Hello sweetheart… do you believe in God?”)
At times Entertainment warrants comparisons to Wim Wenders’ Paris, Texas. Both films feature quiet male leads who are past their prime wandering through sprawling arid landscapes, searching for estranged children. Both films feature scenes drenched in magentas, yellows, and other unnatural colors. Of course its far from this generation’s Paris, Texas; it’s more like the disgruntled, creepy uncle of Wim Wenders’ masterpiece.
Still, despite its cynicism and gloom Alverson manages to inject fleeting moments of wonder throughout the film. The arid deserts may symbolize isolation and loneliness, but they are also breathtakingly beautiful. One scene in particular almost borders on magical realism as we watch Neil observe a large flock of men on dirt bikes bounding across hills in the distance. And the fact that Neil refuses to give up his dream despite being consistently upstaged by his young opening act (portrayed brilliantly by Tye Sheridan) proves how persistent (or insane) he is.
In Entertainment it seems Alverson has found his footing as a filmmaker and has finally created a film that can resonate with audiences rather than alienate them. His harsh humor that frustrated viewers in the past is toned down here, and more attention is given to the actual story. We are introduced to a main character we feel pity for, and it’s much easier to follow him along on his ambling, melancholy journeys. It may be not be the happiest of films, but it’s a pure, unique vision from a new filmmaker that we will undoubtedly hear more about in the future.