Rick Alverson’s Entertainment is best described as a case of willfully false advertising. “Entertainment,” to Alverson, is an invocation of abject human misery rather than a promise of amusement and delight. His film offers neither pleasure nor diversion—instead, it spiritually brutalizes its viewers with a portrait of one comedian’s professional struggles on a road trip through the dusty scrublands of Southwestern America. A man aggressively clearing his throat into a mic while telling gang rape gags: Now that is Entertainment.
The comedian in question is Neil Hamburger, the on-stage persona of real life comic Gregg Turkington. Turkington isn’t playing himself, though, more a version of himself, or someone else entirely who plays Hamburger whenever he performs for a crowd. Entertainment is about this man’s seemingly endless journey across the oil fields and coiling hills of California, bouncing from one backwater to the next, contending with fits of wheezing and throat-clearing as he recites stomach-churning wisecracks that would offend anybody’s better sensibilities if they weren’t so goddamn horrific. Hamburger’s punchlines aren’t funny—they aren’t supposed to be. “What’s the difference,” he squawks, “between Courtney Love and the American flag?” You want to know the answer to his sneering query…but do you really?
Hamburger fires off this opening salvo to a band of prison inmates who bust a gut at every single set-up he places before them. They’re the only people in Entertainment who do, which says everything we need to know about Hamburger’s sense of humor and what, precisely, to expect from the rest of the film. You don’t start off doing stand-up at a correctional facility and move up from there, after all, and indeed, Entertainment is designed to track the trajectory of the character’s downfall as he tries, ceaselessly and without rhyme or reason, to charm his audiences and give them the gift of good cheer. When he fails, he whines and grouses. When they disregard his presence, he tears them to pieces. One notable victim is Amy Seimetz, who appears in a cameo as an unfortunate woman caught in Hamburger’s vindictive crosshairs.
Entertainment would be a bleak enough picture even if it kept its nastiness confined only to scenes where Hamburger does his act. It doesn’t, though, so it’s even bleaker than you’d expect if you’re familiar with Hamburger’s material, or with The Comedy, Alverson’s 2012 ode to jaded millennial indifference, a picture which provokes for provocation’s sake. Like Entertainment, it’s necessarily unfunny. Unlike Entertainment, though, The Comedy had no substance beneath the layers of its cruelty. We gravitate toward Hamburger in spite of ourselves because there’s something sincere there, nestled in his depressive, stoic isolationism.
But what? Entertainment isn’t an easy film to endure, but it is enchantingly noxious. We can’t look away. Part of the film’s magnetism must be credited to Alverson’s skill behind the camera: He pulls back, revealing Hamburger as the infinitely small human being he comes off as when he’s belting out his gruesome quips, and he keeps us on tenterhooks even when there’s nothing happening in the frame. The key is anticipation: Hamburger is so volatile that we expect equally volatile reprisals for every instance in which he berates a drunken, unassuming bar patron, or every interaction he has with other people when he’s simply being himself. He makes idle chit chat with a hotel employee, he stays with his successful but buffoonish cousin (John C. Reilly, affable as always), he connects, if only briefly, with a young woman (Lotte Verbeek) who runs chromotherapy seminars, and he regularly calls his estranged daughter only to leave her voicemails that she probably never hears. There’s a malcontent tensity to every scene Alverson shoots. We can no more avert our gaze than Hamburger can stop performing.
Which makes him weirdly admirable, but it also makes Entertainment an incredible challenge. Patient viewers made of the sternest stuff will find the film rewarding. Everyone else will simply find it loathsome. In truth, those people aren’t wrong: Entertainment is an ugly, episodic movie filled with grotesque misadventures, from public restroom stillbirths to desert party games of Marco Polo illuminated only by flashlight. The film has a lurching, undulating vibe all its own that lends it surrealist nightmare qualities, kind of like if Alejandro Jodorowsky directed a Don Rickles biopic set in the San Joaquin Valley while high on psilocybin. Alverson flips the bird at modern comedy’s growing gentility while telling a story of deeply felt human sadness. If Entertainment reads as angry at a glance, it’s tragic at its heart. Ella Wheeler Wilcox said it best: “Laugh and the world laughs with you; weep and you weep alone.”
Director: Rick Alverson
Writer: Rick Alverson, Gregg Turkington, Tim Heidecker
Starring: Gregg Turkington, Tye Sheridan, John C. Reilly, Amy Seimetz, Tim Heidecker, Michael Cera, Lotte Verbeek
Release Date: November 13, 2015
Boston-based critic Andy Crump has been writing online about film since 2009, and has contributed to Paste Magazine since 2013. He also writes for Screen Rant, Movie Mezzanine and Birth.Movies.Death. You can follow him on Twitter. He is composed of roughly 65% craft beer.