The joke of Entertainment is that it’s rarely entertaining. That’s on purpose. It’s a movie following two entertainers – a middle-aged stand-up (Gregg Turkington) and a teen clown (Tye Sheridan) – as they travel a sad-sack route of decrepit bars, prison cafeterias, and anonymous hotels, gigs in the middle of American southwest nowhere for people who’d just as soon hear a jukebox or some light ambient Muzak. The grind is getting to them: a repetitive cycle of unappreciative audiences and lonely days, punctuated only by the downbeat, awkward surrealism of late nights and small towns, Americana dried up and ready to blow away. Director and co-writer Rick Alverson, whose previous film, 2012’s The Comedy, had a similarly alienating conceit – what if a smugly quipping comedy antihero was in the real world and therefore just a jerk? – has loaded Entertainment with endless pauses and cringingly desperate flop sweat. The extent to which you’ll enjoy it is determined by how much you can take, and how much you decide it matters in the end.
Disheveled, sporting a stringy wet combover, wearing an ill-fitting outdated suit, clutching free drinks in both hands while perching the microphone too close to his mouth, the better to sniff and gargle phlegm into it during the long silent stretches between jokes, Turkington’s comedian is a hopeless figure. He speaks with the sort of affected bluster and unstudied obliviousness a better stand-up might affect to make fun of hack comics. (He also sounds more than a little like Yukon Cornelius.) His every joke starts with a wheezy, drawn-out “Why did…” trailing off into dirty, gross, or just plain odd punchlines about celebrities who’ve long passed their peak name recognition. You get the feeling he’s been performing this material in rooms just like these for a long time. It’s anti-comedy, awfully funny in its awkwardly unfunny desperation, although certainly not the humor expected by the befuddled audiences he greets every night.
This isn’t far removed from Turkington’s usual act, a long and successful run as an aggressively offbeat stand-up he calls Neil Hamburger. I suppose the version we see in Entertainment is a worst-case scenario, the life he could’ve had if he didn’t find audiences to connect with this strange persona. Co-writing with Alverson and Tim Heidecker, Turkington has created a vision of a sad, isolated man out of time. A bad Borscht Belt comedian gone to seed in a present that has little use for him and his traveling act-mate, a mugging miming young man who nonetheless sometimes manages to coax engagement out of stone-faced crowds. A partnership, but not a friendship, the comedian and the clown are in every moment isolated and alone, even when around others. A depressed cloud hangs over the movie, twisting into wistful melancholy (the older man makes phone calls to his estranged daughter) or bitter nastiness (lashing out in cruel and misogynistic language at a heckler). It’s intriguing and off-putting, compelling and uncomfortable.
Equally fascinating and dull, the movie trudges along with its characters in frames of dull colors and casual absurdities. Turkington exudes exhaustion and generalized loathing. Sheridan (who, having worked for a handful of interesting auteurs, on an ABC sitcom, and in an upcoming X-Men, is quietly amassing one of the most impressive resumes of any young actor working today) has a more youthful energy, but the same hazy miserable fog. Along the way are strange characters (including John C. Reilly as a well-meaning oaf who says he “consults about business”) and glum detours. Every stop interrogates what it means to find entertainment, arguing that enjoyment is where you find it. It opens with a tour of an airplane graveyard, and later finds a brief respite in a tiny hotel conference room hosting a color seminar. We meet bartenders, clerks, tour guides, and mysterious strangers, each with their own troubles. The life of a low-rent entertainer is coldly and slowly considered, drawing pessimistic conclusions about the ability to overcome one’s own problems when you’re barely scraping by trying and largely failing to help others forget theirs.