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Punching the Clown

D: Gregori Viens / 90m

Cast: Henry Phillips, Ellen Ratner, Wade Kelley, Matthew Walker, Audrey Siegel, Guilford Adams, Mik Scriba, Evan Arnold, Mark Cohen

Movies about comedians and how they struggle to get noticed or challenge their audiences are few and far between. Dustin Hoffman portrayed Lenny Bruce in the succinctly titled Lenny (1974), Tom Hanks played a fictional comedian in Punchline (1988), and Robert De Niro’s role as Rupert Pupkin in The King of Comedy (1982) is still a benchmark performance in terms of the darkness that (reputedly) lies within the heart of each and every comedian. There’s always a toll to be endured, and whether it’s rejection, disappointment, or outright failure, success – true success – is rarely found at the end of the comedian’s journey.

And so it goes with Punching the Clown (which is a line from one of Henry Phillips’s songs, and refers to something other than actually punching a clown). Having toiled long and hard travelling across America, and taken on gigs at places as diverse as coffee shops and bowling alleys, singer/songwriter Phillips lands a spot at a pizza restaurant. But his performance doesn’t go down so well, particularly with the Christian fund raisers in the audience, and he’s not even paid fully. Deciding it’s time he tried his luck in L.A., he goes to stay with his brother Matt (Walker). Matt is a struggling actor reduced to dressing up as Batman at children’s parties, but he puts Henry in touch with an agent, Ellen Pinsky (Ratner). Ellen takes a shine to Henry but needs to see his act. At a local coffee bar, Espresso Yourself, Henry takes to the stage on an open mic night, and promptly wins over the audience with his songs, which are a mix of droll observational comedy and trenchant psychopathy.

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Ellen gets Henry an invite to a party being held by a record company executive but his attempt at performing backfires. However, a chance encounter with one of the guests there the next day, along with an overheard comment that is misconstrued, leads Henry to being wooed by a record company with the offer of a recording contract. While he makes up his mind, Henry continues playing at the coffee bar, and begins a very tentative relationship with one of the barmaids, Becca (Siegel). But just as Henry’s star begins to wax brightly, a further misunderstanding over the provenance of some bagels leads to accusations that he’s anti-semitic. As this misunderstanding gathers more and more acceptance, Henry finds himself losing his grip not only on the recording contract, but also his relationship with Becca, and his now regular spot at the coffee bar. As things begin to spiral out of control, Henry has to decide if staying in L.A. is still as good an idea as it seemed when he first arrived.

If you haven’t heard of Henry Phillips, don’t worry. Unless you’re familiar with the YouTube series Henry’s Kitchen, then chances are you have no more idea of who he is than you do in knowing who your partner’s seeing behind your back (this is the kind of humour Phillips brings out in his songs; nobody is saying your partner’s seeing anyone behind your back). In songs such as Gotta Get a Girlfriend and Hello Michelle, Phillips spins twisted yarn after twisted yarn as he cuts through the niceties of modern relationships and gets right to the heart of what we’re all really thinking about when it comes to love, sex, and all the selfish motivations that go with them. He’s caustic, witty, keeps just on the right side of being offensive, and has a winning stage presence that’s enhanced by his self-deprecating approach.

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Punching the Clown was a labour of love for Phillips – it took around a decade to get made – and the inclusion of so much material he’d already honed by the time of the movie’s release has the effect of making his stage performances the undisputed highlights of a feature that otherwise lacks the bite needed to make Henry’s odyssey as engaging. As noted above, Phillips has a winning presence on stage, but off it he takes too much of a back seat in his own story, adopting the role of the persistent loser who never gets the respect or acknowledgment he deserves (throughout the movie his act is unfairly compared to that of another singer, Stupid Joe (Cohen), whose clarion call to audiences is, “Are you ready to get guitarded?”). It makes him an entirely sympathetic character, and someone you can root for with ease, but at the same time undercuts the drama when Henry’s “anti-semitism” begins to ruin his newfound success.

That said, there are some quite trenchant comments made about the difficult road to stardom, and the party at the record company executive’s house features a deliciously malicious sequence where each guest rebuffs another guest and is then rebuffed themselves, often with unnecessary cruelty. And when Henry finally gets to begin recording an album, he’s tasked with singing his funniest song, and then a song that’s funny from the very first line, a situation that highlights the common notion that in La La Land, taste is a concept misunderstood by many. Henry’s relationship with his agent is a sweet-natured one, and if it has a whiff of wishful thinking about it, it’s to Phillips’ credit that it’s still affecting (and benefits from a wonderful performance from Ratner, who, it should be noted, is also a White House correspondent when she’s not acting).

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The movie is structured around a radio interview that Henry gives to DJ Captain Chaotic (Kelley), and while some of the scenes in the studio cause an unnecessary disruption to the narrative, Kelley’s portrayal is acerbic, disarming and damn funny. Henry’s relationship with Becca avoids some of the more predictable pitfalls but is set up to fail in such an obvious manner that it’s a little dispiriting (but Phillips makes up for this later). In the director’s chair, Viens holds it all together with a great deal of panache, the movie’s unsurprisingly low budget stretched to good use, and in conjunction with DoP Ian Campbell provides proceedings with a suitably cinema verité look that anchors the “action”. It’s all rounded off by Phillips’ songs, the true heart of the movie, and what makes it work as well as it does.

Rating: 8/10 – some narrative stumbles aside, Punching the Clown is still hugely enjoyable, though if you’re expecting it to be a laugh-a-minute comedy, you’ll be sorely disappointed; far more subtle than it may look, the movie acts as a clever, knowing, well-constructed introduction to the weird and wonderful world of Phillips’ stage persona, and on that basis, is entirely successful.