Sundance 2015 Review: ‘Entertainment’ Dissects Entertainment
Entertainment is a confronting and challenging analysis of what entertainment actually means, and what we expect from our performers. A number of people walked out of the Sundance premiere screening, and I get it. Entertainment is attacking you. As someone who obsesses over film, I welcome this kind of study but the reason it’s so powerful is that it will push people’s buttons.
A comedian named only The Comedian (Gregg Turkington) plays dive bars around California. In between performances, Entertainment explores The Comedian’s still life, and a few recognizable actors (John C. Reilly, Michael Cera, Tye Sheridan) pop up in small scenes. It goes from boring to awkward to abusive to violent to whoa. A lot of people left long before the whoa part, so if they thought the boring part was bad…
Like Rick Alverson’s previous Sundance film, The Comedy, the title is ironic. The Comedy wasn’t a comedy and Entertainment is not entertaining, but why should we expect it to be? That is the most common use of cinema, but not the only application of the medium. And if you took the title literally, who’s fault is that really? It’s especially apropos at Sundance where many of the movies are slow, meandering narratives, so if those get accepted to play the fest, how far can you take it? But yeah, if you took the time to see this avant-garde film and it’s taunting you, it’s a big ask to stay and take it.
The Comedian’s jokes are confronting themselves, but damned if they’re not clever and funny. His style is a sort of wavering Woody Allen type with a slicked down combover stammering through his setup. He asks a question that may itself be offensive or ridiculous. The punchlines are certainly mean and sometimes vile, but they get big laughs.
When he goes really abstract, he’s deconstructing the notion of performance. We accept a certain decorum of joke telling or showmanship, but what’s the bare minimum? What if someone gets up there and doesn’t even do an act? He’s actually called out for this, so at least the film is on our side there, but it’s a fascinating question. We sign a social contract with entertainers, and we may like or dislike the show, but how do we know it’s even a show? Is our expectation reasonable, or is it just the way it’s been for so long?
I don’t have the answers and the film may not have the answers either, but I get a thrill out of the question. Again, it’s because I’m so immersed in this art form that any jarring diversion is provocative. I don’t always like the provocation, but this time I did. Entertainment is not for people looking for “entertainment,” but rather for people who think about the boundaries of entertainment.