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aka Punching Henry

D: Gregori Viens / 94m

Cast: Henry Phillips, Ellen Ratner, Tig Notaro, J.K. Simmons, Mark Cohen, Sarah Silverman, Mike Judge, Jim Jefferies, Stephanie Allynne, Michaela Watkins, Wayne Federman, Doug Stanhope, Adam Nee, Clifton Collins Jr

Ladies and gentlemen, please welcome to the stage… singer, songwriter, and rambling troubadour extraordinaire… Henry Phillips! Five years after leaving L.A. under a cloud of misperceived anti-Semitism, the comic with the deadpan yet whimsical delivery is tempted back to the City of Angels by his agent, the ever-optimistic Ellen Pinsky (Ratner). Last time round it was the promise of a recording contract, this time it’s to meet a TV producer, Jay Warren (Simmons), who’s interested in using Henry’s act and dogged determination to avoid stardom as the basis for a new TV show. But L.A. still isn’t Henry’s town. Less than thirty minutes after he arrives at the home of his friend, Jillian (Notaro), his car is stolen, and at the first gig he plays – with Warren watching – he’s heckled off the stage. But Warren isn’t dissuaded by Henry’s misfortune, and if anything his interest is piqued even further. A meeting is set up with the Noww Channel, and everything looks set to make Henry a star…

Of course, this is Henry Phillips we’re talking about, and so the idea that everything will go smoothly and all work out for the best is about as likely as Liam Hemsworth winning a Best Actor Oscar. Henry is one of Life’s eternal losers, always running to catch up but never quite getting there. Whether he’s losing a battle of wills with a cab despatcher (Stanhope), or accepting a joint at the wrong time, Henry only seems able to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory. It would be painful if it wasn’t so funny. And as with Punching the Clown (2009), this is what makes the movie so enjoyable, and so appealing at the same time. Henry is a lovable schlemiel, someone who keeps plugging away despite every drawback, insult, and injury. Henry doesn’t know what else to do; it’s his life after all. Yes he fails more often than he succeeds, but as he himself says at one point, he has no problem “failing, doing what I love”.

But whether or not Henry is a failure is to miss the point of Phillips’ and director Viens’ script, which artfully makes Henry a man of principle in a world where the people around him seem to have abandoned theirs in order that their lives are simpler. He’s content with his lot, has modest ambitions, and actually enjoys playing the crummy dives and comedy clubs that pay badly or sometimes, not at all. Henry knows his milieu, and it’s a fine distinction to make when judged against the craving for stardom and recognition that seem to be the norm these days. Fame, the movie is trying to say, isn’t all that it’s made out to be. It’s an obvious message, perhaps, but how many other movies make it an integral part of the narrative, or have their central character battle to retain their own idea of their own integrity? (And the clock is ticking…)

Henry is also strangely liberated by his behaviour, even when he gets it badly wrong. A request from Jillian to impregnate her partner, Zoe (Allynne), so they can have a child together proves as difficult a task for Henry to overcome as getting through a set without suffering some disaster. And when he walks off stage because his audience is behaving disrespectfully, what seems like the reaction of a man who hates confrontation, is rather the act of a man who won’t indulge that unpleasant behaviour. Henry may suffer Shakespeare’s “slings and arrows of outrageous fortune” (he’s regularly belittled by people, and often to his face), but he does so with good grace and the understanding that if he was to behave as obtusely as some of the people he encounters, then it will always backfire on him (as with the cab despatcher, a game of one-upmanship that Henry loses at every turn, even when he thinks he’s winning).

Phillips’ awareness of his alter ego’s foibles and habits, adds greatly to the movie’s sense of verisimilitude, whether he’s discussing why he’s in L.A. with radio show host Sharon Levine (Silverman) – a similar framing device to the one employed in Punching the Clown – or pointing out the obvious flaws in the format of the TV show Noww want to produce. And along the way he uses Henry’s experiences to highlight the way in which talent is increasingly manufactured, how broad, focus-based public opinion dictates what consitutes quality, and how even the smallest amount of individual power can be used carelessly or inappropriately and to the detriment of others. Heavy stuff, perhaps, but layered with a winning streak of humour that affords plenty of laughs along the way, whether it’s from lines such as, “It’s Sisyphus meets Charlie Brown!” (the TV show), visual gags such as Henry falling off stage (and going viral), or songs such as Dog-Type Girl (a highlight).

In the end, it’s Henry’s ability to shrug off adversity and make the best of things that makes him so endearing and so easy to spend time with. Phillips the actor is more accomplished than he was in his first outing as Phillips the troubadour extraordinaire, and he’s surrounded by a great cast, from Ratner to Jefferies and Notaro (so dry she’s virtually a desert), and the welcome presence of Simmons whose turn as Warren is shot through with a sense of melancholy that underpins the character and his lifetime in producing perfectly. Viens too is more confident this time around, and the movie’s faux-documentary shooting style is used to much better effect. And for once, the many ways in which this movie apes its predecessor proves to be a boon rather than a burden. Henry has remained consistent in his outlook and his needs, and in doing so has retained the sympathy that audiences can relate to, and he doesn’t let them down when it comes time for him to take to the stage.

Rating: 8/10 – similar in tone and approach to its predecessor, And Punching the Clown (the title is cleverer than it sounds) is a solid, rewarding and very funny second entry in the life and times of Henry Phillips, failing singer and comedian; smarter than your average low budget indie comedy, this will keep fans of the original very happy indeed, and if caught by newcomers, work as a terrific introduction to Phillips’ and the way in which he is able to “satisfy his satisfaction”.

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