It's horseshit. I mean, one night you're having a beer with your scene partner and the next morning he's slashing your tires so you don't make it to the Hot Pockets audition...I'm just sayin' that real people don't last five minutes in this town, so watch your back.
This line from PUNCHING THE CLOWN, the quietly uproarious indie comedy from writer/director Gregori Viens, perfectly illustrates this funny portrayal of entertainment industry culture. Populated largely by Hollywood hopefuls and wannabe's, the LA scene pulses with the sort of angst-ridden undercurrent that arises in most resource-scarce environments; in this case, hoards of aspiring writers, directors, musicians and actors whose numbers far exceed any available opportunities for breakout success.
This reality plays out hilariously in this narrative feature, which follows comedian Henry Phillips (as an amalgam of himself) as he heads to LA to try and make it big. To a certain extent, we've seen it before. But what Viens and Phillips satirize is how this neurotic search for fame and fortune permeates every level of a society where anybody and everybody is striving to be "somebody."
From the low-level record company executive whose daily existence is fueled by fear of missing the "next big thing" to the coffee shop cashier whose aspirations fail to pan out day after day, life becomes an exhausting exercise of battling big egos, weeding out the "nobody's" and sycophantically clinging to any talent that shows even the slightest potential of stardom.
The tension, frustration and disillusionment that result form the basis for the entertainingly absurd events that unfold in PUNCHING THE CLOWN.
And then there's the media.
Part of what endears me to this story so much is my own despising of the media machine. The older you get, the more you appreciate that most famous personalities are nothing more than media fabrications - the product of PR campaigns aimed at creating solid, "bankable" stars that will guarantee box office success for big studios and record companies and generate hefty profits for media outlets.
For the press, playing the game is a bit like riding the ups and downs of the stock market: you make lots of money on the way up and, if you play your cards right, stand to gain even more on the way down. In the entertainment world, this consists of building a public figure to near god-like status, then salivating at the prospect that this same figure could make one bad decision or blurt out one poorly worded comment, giving you license to unravel the facade and pander to a public so spiritually bankrupt they'll continue to shell out diminishing reserves of expendable income for daily doses of Schadenfreude.
I won't give away the full storyline here, but you can probably figure out where this is going. Though the plot in PUNCHING THE CLOWN plays out in the extreme (it is satire, after all), the performances here are wonderfully understated, the character development far more nuanced than you might find in, say, a mockumentary style film. This keeps you invested through the plot's twists and turns; even the so-called antagonists here have a certain (sym)pathetic quality to them.
As a director, Viens seems to appreciate the abilities of his cast to bring their own experience to the table and he artfully avoids the exaggerated performances inherent in most big-budget comedies. The acting is never overdone. The comedy here has a much more real, much more human appeal.
Don't get me wrong, there's a definite Jerry-Springer-effect going on here; you can't help but laugh at these characters' misfortune, but not in a grotesque sort of way. You grow to like these characters and empathize with their struggles, so the laughter is a bit more bittersweet and the experience as a whole ultimately much more satisfying.
DON'T MISS PUNCHING THE CLOWN - dammit!
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DOWNLOAD THE PODCAST OF MY GREGORI VIENS INTERVIEW HERE!