REVIEW: Punching the Clown Tackles the Lonely Life of a Singing Comedian
The singing comedian is a rarefied niche, not much seen since the last days of vaudeville and the decline of the candy-gram. The potential flipside of nichehood, however, is that if there is an audience out there -- or if one can be created -- it is being hopelessly underserved. They Might Be Giants and Flight of the Conchords have helped keep the form alive, and in Punching the Clown Henry Phillips does his bit, playing his deadpan folk tunes about stone-cold bitches and privileged poverty on the coffee house circuit, entertaining America one incredulous micro-batch at a time.
Though Phillips plays himself, Punching the Clown is a fictionalized, lightly fantastical version of the story director Gregori Viens told 13 years ago in his documentary of the same name. Friends since college, the two men drew from Phillip's life as a traveling troubadour looking for a break; no doubt many of the layered scenes of L.A. silliness are drawn from their experience of trying to finance the film itself. Eventually they went their own way, and were thus free to experiment with tone, structure, and idiosyncratic pacing. The result is a shaggy rise-and-fall story that is deceptively well-wrought, playing at times like an extremely hip, deep-access concert film.
At other times -- specifically an early scene in which Phillips's bottom-tier agent (Ellen Ratner) takes him to a chilling L.A. industry party to hobnob -- Viens's impulses invoke Altman at his blackly parodic best. Showing a gathering whose attendants are all desperate to get away from each other and move on to someone more promising, the scene is a staple in any film that turns a bleak eye on the squirming show-business underbelly, but Viens manages to give the tropes a fresh splash of vinegar. He captures the horror show of humans toiling in a vapid, fear-driven industry, setting the odds against an artist trying to maintain a sliver of identity so high that the largely reactive Phillips can barely see over them.
An interview with a local late-night radio host (Wade Kelly) gives the film its flashback structure: Phillips recounts his disorienting journey through the maze of making a name for himself. Crashing with his brother (Matt Walker), an aspiring actor gigging at children's birthday parties, Phillips makes a run at the big time, and Viens theorizes about how the treasured commodity of buzz finds a way to generate itself. The joke begins well -- a label rep who had previously blown Phillips off (obviously) becomes interested when he thinks he hears an established artist complimenting him -- and escalates into farce when a benign comment about bagels during an office meeting begets underling gossip about Phillips's diva-like behavior. Hollywood ecology as a game of broken telephone feels about right, though the misunderstandings multiply until Phillips becomes a bona fide PR disaster (and rumored neo-nazi). The grapevine's brutal endgame feels uncomfortably like overkill for a film whose success hinges on its gimlet-eyed reserve.
More incisive if only slightly less absurd is the pressure Phillips is under to conform to the style of the label's other singing comedy guy, a Weird Al mutation called Stupid Joe. Phillips is treated like a performing monkey by the suits in the recording studio, as painful a scene of the impossibility of merging corporate interests with artistic individuality as any I've seen. Through every indignity Phillips is ineffectual to the point of haplessness; even his minor-key romance with the barista (Audrey Siegel) at the coffee house where he plays is clouded by the haze of ambivalence that follows him everywhere but onstage.
Monotone-voiced and inscrutable offstage, Phillips is focused, free-ranging, and very funny on, a dispositional mystery that Punching the Clown (a lyric from one of Stupid Joe's stupid hits) resolves in its own time and on a cumulative head of steam. Audiences love him, given the chance, and even the humblest spotlight keeps him going. The film's conclusion is sad and sweet in equal measures: It's hard to lament washing out of L.A. when the road (or possibly Portland, the new Mecca of curbed career expectations) was your true and temperamental home all along.