19 July 2012

Punching the Clown

Faced with several attractive possibilities for Netflix streaming, but overloaded on conflicting reasons for watching each one, I instead decided to watch a completely random movie I'd never heard of and knew nothing about. Typical to this situation, the Netflix image for the movie was a deciding factor:
The randomness of my choice, as opposed to the deliberateness of selecting one 'for my mood' or based on expectations, combined with the interesting poster (complete with laurels), and the positivity expressed by the swath of reviews I sampled, compelled me to watch Punching the Clown. Sometimes this method burns me and wastes my time, but I was lucky enough this time that it paid off.

Henry Phillips plays a fictional version of himself in a movie he co-wrote with director Gregori Viens. Henry is a comedian/musician large enough to have his name listed in Wikipedia, and small enough that the link doesn't lead to a page (red font = no link):
and that seems like a pretty good introduction to Henry. In the movie he's decided to give his industry career a chance to blossom by moving to LA and sleeping on his brother's couch. His brother, Matt (Matthew Walker), is an actor who, when not auditioning for Hot Pocket commercials, dresses as Batman for children's parties.
Not actually a photo of Matt, this is Henry in Matt's costume. Matt is a balding redhead with a goatee and jangly teeth (I assume that's how he likes to be described)

Matt: Carrie left me.
Henry: Aw shit man. Just like that huh?
Matt: Well we had a pretty big fight, and I'll spare you all the gory details, but I thought it would be a good idea to make up, so I sent her a singing telegram. Then she fucked the singing telegram guy.

The movie does a good job of rerouting typical situations into humorous variants. The narrative works by surprise, coincidence, misunderstanding, etc punchline betrayals of audience expectations. His lyrical humor functions this way as well, by employing creative wordplay; because of this, his songs work best the first time you hear them (I wonder if the movie would be like that too, cinematically it's unimpressive).
The movie's LA feels unprocessed and realistic (it's shot 'documentary style'). There's often a satirical view of LA milieu and its tendency for small-talk charged with business overtones. Other LA topics explored are personal voice vs marketing image, power vs perception of power, public appearances vs reality, etc social dimensions common to the entertainment industry.

A thing I liked about Punching the Clown is Henry doesn't possess an LA personality. Henry seems genuinely unfazed by the gloss and glamor of the city, uninterested in adapting to its business models. He hopes to remain himself and obtain the modest goal of financial success. In this way the movie is about the enduring artistic struggle to retain one's integrity and intentions in the business of art. This makes the movie the least-LA LA movie I've seen in a long, long time.

I don't think Henry places himself above LA, I think he's likable for his skill at deflating the ego of LA while cracking into his own persona. It's not at all a story about a rise to success, or even overlooked genius. Just some crummy and relatable semi-miserableness. He pokes fun at his plight by performing a blues song that's about being out of blues, because his life isn't so bad. The movie's dry humor compliments its vague dreariness, and it's consistently funny and interesting.

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