There is a moment in Rick Alverson’s Entertainment that finds the rumpled protagonist using a trophy to “gun down” his audience. It devolves or perhaps evolves into fart noises and lasts several minutes, it seems. The character leaves the stage, seems to consider something and is promptly told by the promoter that there’s no way she’s going to be paying for that.
Some in the audience may have a similar reaction to Alverson’s 2015 picture, which is difficult to pin down in conventional terms. That’s a good thing. Some might consider Entertainment confrontational, while others will find it depressing. Others may find the endless vistas of the desert difficult to take, especially because so little happens in standard cinematic terms. But such is life.
The Comedian (Gregg Turkington) is a stand-up comedian. Judging by the lack of laughter emanating from his audiences, he’s not a very good one. He clears his throat, rolls out a series of “why…” gags that typically land with a thud, aggressively confronts his audience, and so on. He’s on tour with a bawdy clown (Tye Sheridan) whose crowning moment involves miming masturbation and pooing into a hat.
Go figure that the clown is more popular than the Comedian, whose greasy hair and armful of booze doesn’t go over well amid the speckle of barflies and whatevers. And that’s the thing, too: nobody seems to actually want to see the Comedian. In between gigs, he wanders the desert and checks out the sights. He also presumably calls his daughter, visits his cousin (John C. Reilly) and so on.
Those who know Turkington will know what they’re getting into, as his Neil Hamburger character is essentially the star of the show. He’s been cultivating and refining the club comic archetype for 20 years now, so he knows the soul of Hamburger and understands the pathos behind the jokes and anti-jokes. He is, politely described, a surly individual even at the best of times.
That doesn’t stop the world from trying to happen to him, of course. The Comedian finds himself in a number of odd, unexplained situations. A woman gives birth in a public restroom, for instance. And Michael Cera shows up as another public restroom character, while Lotte Verbeek inexplicably plays a chromatherapist. Yes, she drags the Comedian into a light booth for therapeutic reasons.
If the Comedian could be said to be doing anything, it would be drifting. Is he happy? It hardly matters. Whether or not the audience is witnessing the tale of a depressed individual seems to fly in the face of Entertainment’s insistent lack of meaning. Parsing it in order to forge attachments seems the antithesis, although there are many scenes that beg “why” questions.
But perhaps the Comedian counters the existential by asking and asking and asking again his own miserable, grating “why” questions. He’s frustrated, that’s clear, but to the extent of it only rolls to the surface when he verbally attacks a woman who seems to be having a very bad night. The Comedian gets his just desserts, but the whole ordeal is just bleak.
Some people would describe Entertainment as charting a course through human tragedy, but that seems off the mark. While it’s easy to quantify the Comedian as failing because he doesn’t produce laughs, the same can be said for most of us. How much can “success” really be calculated by the so-called average people wandering this blue dot? What measurements should be used?
Make no mistake, this isn’t some blithe story of a successful comic working his way through successful gigs in front of successful crowds. Most observers would consider Entertainment a tour through the Land of the Losers with the Comedian as the Loser King. But this immaterial narrative begs more, just like life begs to be about more than mere metrics of achievement. Existence is funny that way.