Even as an optimistic 26-year-old who invisions a hopeful future fueled by youthful ambitions, Entertainment hits a little too close to home for comfort. I can’t fathom being twenty years older, blindly pushing forward in the name of passion while writing film reviews for an audience I could count on one hand. That thought, in all its wasted glory, is what Rick Alverson’s movie is about – drowning in personal desire with little recognition to show. Sure, one could conform and become the same generic jester that brings joy to crowds nationwide, but Entertainment is about sticking to your guns, and going down in flames while doing so. The life of an artist is f$cking brutal, especially when selling out isn’t in your vocabulary.
Gregg Turkington stars as “The Comedian,” who is better known as Neil Hamburger to fans of his dry-witted humor. As Turkington’s entertainer finds himself touring Mojave dive bars with lackluster results, we learn that not everything is peaches and cream for the struggling comedian. Night after night he endures diminishing crowds who don’t find semen-heavy humor the least bit funny, but he pushes onward in the name of perseverance. Or maybe it’s just all this comedian knows, as he redefines our understanding of entertainment with each grimace from an offended audience member. Turkington knows what makes himself laugh, and he wants to share that strange personality with the world, but unfortunately such a mindset doesn’t always pay handsomely or garner fame.
At its core, Entertainment is about a broken comedian who only seems alive when onstage. The film itself is comprised of many silent reflections while Turkington waits for his performance turn to come, none of which we’re invited to hear via a narration or voiceover. In front of a crowd, Turkington becomes Neil Hamburger, but in real life, his persona is nothing but another beaten showman who struggles to muster the energy to exist.
It’s tragic, watching someone “fail” so mightily at something they love, but Turkington’s narcissistic passion inspires a strange sense of hope we’d be lucky to embrace. Such a strong commitment makes you redefine success, not in dollar amounts, but in livelihood and perseverance. At what point does the act become frivolous, though? Turkington’s protagonist seems to have reached that tipping point, teetering on a fence between continued stagnation and abandoning what dreams remain.
Such a melancholy supporting cast leaves nothing to be desired, from John C. Reilly’s “is he really happier?” family competition, to Tye Sheridan’s rival clown who represents everything Turkington’s comedian isn’t. Sheridan’s performance is a thing of simplistic genius, as he doesn’t have to do anything but appear as a clown to earn laughs. He mimics masturbation on stage, fake defecates in a hat, and jumps up and down like a trained monkey, but it works, and he achieves levels of audience enjoyment Turkington never experiences. It’s genius, heartbreaking, and immaturely asinine all at the same time, but Sheridan stands for everything Turkington despises about the “now” – achievements included.
Entertainment‘s bleakness is relentless in execution, as Alverson never sets out to tell a tale of rebirth, deserved respect, or underdog victories. This is, in every sense, a reality check that berates its audience with silence, loneliness, and questions of how we live our lives. As Turkington takes the stage, we’re forced to helplessly watch audiences cringe at his fake throat clearing and awkward, nasally voice, while jokes range from the obscene to the offensive, with “What was Elvis’ worst release? Lisa Marie!” representing some of his tamest material.
Even the celebrity party he constantly name-drops ends up being a fifteen-to-twenty person backyard show, revealing this beacon of hope as nothing but another miniature gig that won’t kickstart any newfound fame. It’s a bit like the story of Sisyphus, in which Turkington’s punishment is to play the same deserted clubs over and over again for all of eternity – and yes, I did just get all “Greek mythology” on y’all. There are layers here, more than any failing comedian would like to admit.
Alverson himself is a gifted filmmaker, and his subjects tend to be intriguing messes. Entertainment is no different, spiced by colorized lighting that correlates with Turkington’s actions, but it’s certainly a challenging watch for those who expect generic rags-to-riches empathy. This is not about success – this is about how entertainment is digested, and the imprisonment of showmanship even though you’re hated by half your audience.
The heart of Entertainment is honest, as Turkington admits that being hated or loved doesn’t matter as long as your crowd is entertained. Why waste your time with niceties when you can just berate a drunk audience member to the point of an emotional breakdown, because you hate yourself in a very self-serving way? Turkington isn’t out to make friends (ignoring Sheridan’s compassion, staying silent in social interactions), he’s just out to entertain his audience by any means possible – a steep and tragic slope that leads into something of a performer’s recurring nightmare. If that’s the kind of dark, sad comedy that appeals to your tastes, then look no further. Cynics of the world, do I have a movie for you…
A Greek tragedy told through the vessel of a small-time comedian, Entertainment is a bleak look into a broken man swallowed-up by second-rate show business.