For more than two decades, Gregg Turkington has been performing stand-up comedy as his alter ego Neil Hamburger. Hamburger has a distinct brand of comedy, combining topical pop culture joke delivered in a nasally voice with the odd visuals of his oversized spectacles and pomade slathered on his scalp to maintain an egregious comb-over. Like his frequent collaborator, Tim Heidecker, before him, Turkington has teamed up with director Rick Alverson to make an uncomfortable exercise in playing against type, of subverting their well-established comedic flair. But the resulting film, simply titled Entertainment, is a subdued work of tragic comedy that’ll likely leave those expecting The Neil Hamburger Movie cold, yet is still a bold, substantial work anchored by a strong performance by Turkington.
Entertainment is about The Comedian (Turkington), which is never explicitly said to be Neil Hamburger but is Hamburger through and through. At night he performs in dusty gin joints throughout California’s Central Valley. By day, he participates in mundane tours of the Central Valley’s sights, like old oil fields and airplane graveyards. Throughout his travels, The Comedian encounters a variety of characters, most of whom quickly fade from his life upon the conclusion of his show. Most of all, The Comedian interacts with Eddie (Tye Sherridan), a young man who is committed to the art of pantomime. Other oddballs that enter into The Comedian’s life include his successful cousin John (John C. Reilly), a heckler in a bar (Amy Seimetz), and a stranger stranded in a roadside restroom (Michael Cera). But all these interactions are fleeting moments for a man who wishes to keep to himself. The only interaction that The Comedian willfully seeks are his nightly calls to his daughter, though she never answers his calls. There’s a silver lining ahead, a possible big break for The Comedian as he’s booked a gig playing a party for a big-time Hollywood celebrity (Heidecker).
Director Rick Alverson and cinematographer Lorenzo Hagerman fill Entertainment with a number of wide shots that accentuate the underlying loneliness and desolation of touring the scarcely populated Central Valley. They also allow the film take on the lessons of a chromotherapy session that The Comedian observes, red and blue lights taking over the frame in order to illustrate mood. The imagery works in unison with the quiet loneliness of Turkington’s Comedian.
Serving as the star and co-writer of Entertainment, the film is a showcase for the varied talents of Gregg Turkington. On stage, doing his stand-up material, Turkington elicits the biggest laughs employing jokes from his Neil Hamburger routines. But the detached desolation of his surroundings and emotions comes through in nearly every frame. It’s all a testament to Turkington’s abilities as a performer, highlighting a rarely seen dramatic side, and illustrating just how good he is whether he’s performing as Neil Hamburger or as himself on the show On Cinema at the Cinema.
Entertainment is a much more disciplined film than Alverson’s previous film The Comedy. It certainly doesn’t hurt that The Comedian is a much more empathetic person than the wealthy, solipsistic lead of The Comedy. Written by Alverson, Turkington, and Heidecker, Entertainment paints a sad, lonely portrait of someone struggling to make a living telling jokes. One could assume that there’s a bit of autobiography hidden within the frames of Entertainment, but both Turkington and Heidecker have never shied away from self-parody so deciphering that line between fact and fiction is all but impossible. But it should reiterated that Entertainment isn’t a comedic farce in the vein of anything else featuring Neil Hamburger. This is a darkly comic tragedy that isn’t afraid to challenge its audience.
Entertainment opens in select theaters and VOD on November 13th. For more information, go to the film’s official site.