Overview: An aging, sideshow comedian makes a tour of the American Mojave Desert while contemplating the emptiness of existence, his own and others. Magnolia Pictures; 2015; Rated R; 103 Minutes.
Study in Inertia: As Rick Alverson’s follow-up to The Comedy, a surprising, ugly, and brutal 2012 comedy of errors, Entertainment establishes itself as a clear, even-tempered continuation of many of the same themes and aesthetic nuances that made the former film such an unforgettable monument to American inertia. In Entertainment, Gregg Turkington, who played a supporting role in Alverson’s last opus, plays the lead role in the guise of Neil Hamburger, a stage persona developed and perfected by the actor and stand-up performer decades prior to the film’s production. Called simply The Comedian in the film’s script, Turkington exudes menace and bite, his well of undisguised self-hatred and spiritual despondency seemingly reflected in a Wasteland against which he has cast himself, figuratively and literally. At times it would appear as though Turkington means to speak to something artistic in his deconstruction of the mythos of The Comedian character on stage in the same vein as Tony Clifton, the great creation of the late Andy Kaufman, though both figures loom furtively, with all of the attendant inertia of individual defeat and creative decline.
Nowhere-Land: Like the classic Beatles single, Turkington appears to personify the absence of not only any projected affect, but also any personality from whence said absence might be deemed markedly missing. As a true nowhere-man, the California against which Turkington is projected in Alverson’s film becomes a nowhere-land by proxy, a dramatic dumping ground for lost hopes and broken dreams. Here, The Comedian and his side-show attraction Eddie the Opener, played to great dramatic effect by the young Tye Sheridan (Mud, The Tree of Life), are permitted to strut and fret their hours away upon a series of stages. Throughout, the audiences that come out to see Turkington and Sheridan are made up of the dregs of human civilization, and the people with whom The Comedian makes personal acquaintance are of the most demoralized and emotionless sort imaginable. There is no clear narrative goal to the film’s meandering, slow-going pace, and there is no dramatic catharsis. Instead, Turkington composes a series of letters to a long-lost daughter, who may or may not actually exist, serving as a lament without aim or subject, a lone wailing into the void of self.
Running On Empty: Many viewers of Alverson’s latest directorial effort are likely to find even less to like about Turkington’s starring-turn than they did with Heidecker’s, as the film finds little purpose outside of a visual aesthetic entirely emptied of any narrative purpose. Like The Comedy, Alverson’s latest never offers any catharsis to the story that it tells in an erstwhile manner, save for the exhausting moodiness and somber tone that proves otherwise all pervasive. Alverson as a director consistently attempts to run on empty as an auteur, his cinematic palate one dominated by earth tones and drearily bleak landscapes possessed of a foreboding vacancy. The few signs of life that populate the film are intermittent, with the few and far between samplings of southeastern California life morbidly fascinating, and brief, leaving Turkington as the lone survivor of Alverson’s apocalyptic take on dramatic agency in art.
Overall: It’s hard to imagine Alverson’s new film finding an audience larger than the one that already knows about its existence and lead actor, however intriguing an exercise in thematic stasis it may be.