In a previous post, I alluded to the fact that I have a soft spot for upbeat viewing. In that specific case, it was as a way of unwinding from my cerebrally taxing endeavors. But even before I was knowingly engaging in criticism, I always found comfort in the light and cheerful. In fact it is possible that I consume these products more correctly than I do the graver materials. There is no shortage of good media that is also optimistic; just look at Parks and Recreation, Portlandia, or Clueless. But their quality is a secondary matter to the escapism they offer. Left to my own devices, my mind is that of a hyperactive, neglectfully attended child atop an Action Park waterslide that slopes into darkness.
That in itself is bad, but these thoughts are of such power that I always feared they could sniff me out of hiding. And my fear was vindicated following an umpteenth viewing of Napoleon Dynamite.
Jared and Jerusha Hess’s 2004 debut feature is eternally polarizing. Some love it for the excessive quirk of its world and the almost childish guilelessness of its characters and some do not. I was perfectly at peace the first time I saw it the summer it was released, with my father and one of my brothers in tow, in a Montclair movie theater that no longer exists. All three of us were delighted and remain so. At the time it seemed quite appropriate that it was contrasted against Todd Solondz’s similarly styled but far bleaker depiction of awkward adolescence, Welcome to the Dollhouse. But lately I’ve come to realize that this was an error.
My error is twofold. First, Welcome to the Dollhouse is not similarly styled. It is a realistic portrayal of a gawky, inept child stuck in a suburb whose alternating hostility and emptiness is rendered with a classical sculptor’s precision. Second, Napoleon Dynamite is actually the bleaker of the two films. This might seem ludicrous, but it makes more sense when you see what Napoleon Dynamite is presenting: a tightly contained ideal. It is a kind of rustic snow globe where the depravity of the outside world is prohibited, and this is portrayed with delicate suggestion. “I don’t know how they do things down in Juarez,” the school principal tells Pedro, “but here in Idaho we have a little something called pride. Smashing in the face a piñata that resembles Summer Wheatley [his rival for class president] is a disgrace to you, me, and the entire Gem State.” The film does end on an upbeat note, with Napoleon playing tetherball with his love interest Deb, but we are left with the suggestion that things go downhill the moment he stops playing.
This interpretation was given greater illumination when I recently watched Rick Alverson’s 2015 film Entertainment. It tells of a standup comic, simply identified in the credits as “The Comedian” as he goes on tour through the Mojave Desert to Los Angeles, performing to audiences in bars, restaurants, and prisons who are varyingly unreceptive. He is played by Gregg Turkington, and is actually a revival of his character Neil Hamburger, a dark parody of a night club comedian, with a cheap tuxedo and a greasy comb-over, who seethes with unfunny one-liners (“Why does Madonna feed her baby Alpo brand dog food,” goes one of his “jokes.” “Because that’s what comes out of her breasts.”) while clutching multiple cocktails in his arms as he holds his microphone. When Norm Macdonald lambasted the performance criticism of anti-comedy, Hamburger is doubtless the example he had in mind.
Turkington was initially approached with the idea of playing Hamburger as interacting with people on the street. But rather than risk devolving into a Borat knock-off, Turkington preferred “a Two-Lane Blacktop art film kind of vibe.” Its conception was not so much ambitious as it was shrewd. It is at once a kind of lyrical road film and an upending of the character vehicle. It demystifies Hamburger’s persona even further by showing him out of character, so to speak. Off-stage, Hamburger’s grating register reverts back to Turkington’s more introverted tone and manner as he shuffles through venues, tourist traps, guest rooms, motels, party houses, and endless stretches of hot desert road. The most time he is seen speaking, outside of performance, is into his phone as he leaves rambling messages to his estranged daughter Maria, who does not answer or reply.
Like Napoleon Dynamite, the film is framed in static but beautiful establishing shots of vast western wilderness and tacky, time-abandoned interiors. But whereas Napoleon Dynamite’s Idaho was a safe enclosure of expansive blue skies and knick knack-filled homes, Neil Hamburger’s California is an endless scorched waste of airplane graveyards, sterile lodgings, strung-out hipsters, a very creepy Michael Cera, and minimal—seldom warm—human contact. Entertainment comes closest to a kind of spiritual sequel to Napoleon Dynamite, in which a singularly odd character is stranded from his home, trying to survive in a much less hospitable world. It is Napoleon Dynamite in exile.
Entertainment is neither a comedy nor an anti-comedy, nor is it really a drama. It tows the line between the realistic and the absurd and leans deeper in either direction. But no matter which way it leans, the result is always a variation on emptiness. The story is more of a series of incidents strung together than a narrative. He is patronized by a more successful cousin (played by John C. Reilly) on his expansive ranch, he has an ethereal but opaque session with a traveling chromotherapist, an eye doctor forgets about him mid-appointment, he agrees to, then abandons, a shoot for an internet comedy video in the middle of the desert, his opening act is a silent clown. His most receptive audience is politely laughing convicts. His strategy for interruptions is to verbally lacerate. A drunk woman cuts off his train of thought and he proceeds to call her a “whore” with “syphilis breath” as she stares back at him with a mix of shock and familiarity. She accosts him outside and breaks his glasses. When you see Neil go low, he goes lower still. When a private party requires him to jump out of a large cake, he breaks down and jumps into the pool.
Entertainment was little seen upon its release while being more praised than not by critics; with an 82 percent Rotten Tomatoes rating. One dissenter was Vulture’s David Edelstein, who watched it twice but couldn’t be convinced “that Alverson and Turkington had made an authentically punk art movie.” For all its willingness to examine “the skeletal remains of a snobbish, viciously exploitative America,” it lacked a compelling explorer. “Neil is quite a character—he’s unforgettable. But he doesn’t have the stature for tragedy.” He’s not wrong. Excessive cynicism can be every bit as unpalatable as excessive whimsy. But maybe that’s not really the intent of the film—or anyway it’s not its most interesting attribute.
Todd Solondz has dodged accusations of his own of being misanthropic, but as The AV Club points out, that is a gross simplification of his work. Though his films examine “the minds of the unlovable and unforgivable,” not only pitiful adolescent nerds but also pedophiles and anti-abortion terrorists, he does so with an aim towards humanization and empathy. “Where other filmmakers strain to give us protagonists that are immediately identifiable, Solondz tends to confront us with someone who, for most of the audience, is an ill-fitting subversion of a stereotype we didn’t know we had.”
Looked in this way, the effect of Entertainment might not be in how we respond to Neil Hamburger, but in what Neil Hamburger reflects back at us. Hamburger may not have “the stature of tragedy”—but we might. Indeed, Turkington’s creation is not a very effective commentary on standup comedy hackery—compared, anyway, to someone like Dan Nainan. Instead he strikes more broadly at the sense of exhaustive despair that is either felt or feared but never easy to articulate. Neil Hamburger is a kind of manifestation of our greatest weaknesses, our laziness, our vindictiveness, our drift into mediocrity, our isolation. He embodies Ambrose Bierce’s definition of being alone: “in bad company.” Rather than a jester of anti-comedy, Neil Hamburger is a specter of anti-horror.
But through all this, Entertainment reasserts itself as two films in one. It is a brutal trek through the American frontier’s social excrement. It is also a character study of our encroaching moral and emotional solipsism. It is suited for a warmer reception now that the rest of the country has more or less caught up with its corrosive pessimism and now that the film is on Netflix. Yet Entertainment does have one thread through which it could have stitched a timeless, or at least more coherent, work.
In one of his several calls to his daughter, Neil, drunk and on the floor, sings “Ave Maria” into her voicemail. Edelstein points out that these iterations of Maria are not accidental. Over the course of the film, the invitations to conversation assume the cadence of prayers to a being he can’t quite distinguish. In one call he asks her point blank if she believes in God. Yet these read less like a thematic undercurrent and more like a missed opportunity. With the amorality of the era well established by now, the creative curiosity not just for moral narrative, but religious narrative, has been on the rise. If mother! was an imperfect entry, it was also an indicator of further commitment. Neil Hamburger’s Dark Night of the Soul might have elevated the broadly tragic and shocking non sequiturs into more classically grotesque observances of the suffering and humility that can give way to grace. Michael Cera’s menacing but pointless cameo could have made an unsettling case for the demonic presence. “Neil is desperate for salvation,” Edelstein writes. He could have had it.
It is possible that I’m reading too much into this with the religious road movie I already have in my head. But Entertainment at least understands more concretely, and with far less words, what most proselytizers can only speak of in the abstract: we are exhausted trying to fill our spiritual absence with empty calories. At the film’s best, Neil Hamburger’s hopeless binge veers on the poetic. The power inherent in finding one is no longer hungry remains unrealized.