I was scared to watch Entertainment for a long time. After experiencing Rick Alverson’s previous collaboration with Tim Heidecker in the painfully dark film The Comedy, the prospect of watching Gregg Turkington bring his Neil Hamburger character into these harsh realms sounded gut-wrenching. Of course there has always been a purposefully explored element of extreme sadness to Turkington’s long-running performance as the decrepit, misanthropic comedian telling offensive jokes about celebrities that cause audiences to recoil. His bait-and-switch act can leave you gasping one moment and in tears with laughter the next, but in this film it becomes a numb haze.
Entertainment imagines a deeper backstory for Neil Hamburger where Turkington (here simply named The Comedian, or maybe Gene) brings his act on the road to small town venues across America while sinking into a pit of despair. In this dogged one-man journey, he is joined by a young clown comedian played with aplomb by Tye Sheridan, John C. Reilly as a supportive but ultimately condescending cousin, and others who attempt to help the touring performer on his slow ride to the edge of sanity.
Alverson (with the help of Heidecker and Turkington’s riveting script) creates a stunning series of vignettes where the edges between nightmare and reality begin to blur. As he crosses state lines from one hotel room and roadside bathroom to another, a low-simmering fear follows The Comedian at every slowly shuffling step. Does he really help a woman give birth, meet a manic Michael Cera, or play Marco Polo with a houseful of drugged out Southerners? (Bonus points for the second excellent David Yow cameo I’ve seen alongside Under The Silver Lake.) This film never lets us know and is more powerful for it.
Turkington’s performance has a magnetic loner quality that rivals Philip Seymour Hoffman in Owning Mahowny, so obsessively dedicated to a singular pursuit that it will inevitably lead to his downfall. We never learn the circumstances that led up to Gene bringing his soaked Tony Clifton with four drinks under his arm act on an endless tour circuit, how he ended up performing at a birthday party in the Hollywood hills, or why his daughter won’t pick up the phone when he calls.
There are beautiful images bursting off the screen throughout Entertainment, with Turkington somehow containing a lifetime of regret in his eyes behind a yellow pair of sunglasses and matching baseball cap. Ultimately this is a film about the horrible powers of depression to overwhelm the human spirit, as someone can long for connection at the same time as they push people away with all of their strength. Not even the horrific scene where The Comedian insults a woman in his audience until she hurls a full drink at the stage (based on a real life event that happened when he was punched in the face at the Sled Island festival) can shake him out of this blank state. His character drifts through life with a dullness that anyone who has suffered with depression will understand. This is Turkington’s brilliance, simply adding darker, sadder colours to the rich tapestry he’s has been weaving in a long distance performance for the past 30 years. Five bags of popcorn.