“What’s the difference between Courtney Love and the American flag?” whines the stand-up comedian. “It would be wrong to urinate on the American flag.” Welcome to the world of Neil Hamburger, a cult performer (real name: Gregg Turkington) who wears bus-window glasses, an old-school Vegas tux, and a comb-over that could pass for a Georgia O’Keeffe painting. Cranky and phlegmatic, Hamburger is the central character in Entertainment, a daring and mainly successful black comedy about a dour and depressive comedian on a dead-end tour of California. Many of his jokes spring from an undisguised contempt for celebrities, so you know he’s not going to turn up on The Tonight Show anytime soon. When his jokes bomb, he scolds the audience members for their ingratitude; when his obscene verbal takedown of a drunken woman impels her to throw a drink at him, he drives her out of the bar with an even viler stream of invective.
Turkington has racked up a respectable number of TV and movie acting credits, but his collaboration here with writer-director Rick Alverson is a marriage made in heaven. Alverson’s previous feature, The Comedy, plunged viewers into the endless, mean-spirited drollery of a fat, puerile trust-fund kid on the wrong side of 30 (TV sketch comedian Tim Heidecker) and his little court of obsequious hangers-on. Despite the generic title, the movie is like a kiss-off letter to its own hipster audience, rubbing their noses in their own impotent irony. Entertainment operates with a similar dynamic: you come to the movie hoping it will make good on its title, but the spotlight is actually on you and what your taste in amusement says about you as a person. You can throw your drink at the screen, but your only real escape is to surrender and walk out.
Alverson easily ranks as one of the nerviest indie filmmakers currently working, though Entertainment—like The Comedy before it—eventually hits the wall. There’s a subplot in which the comedian, who’s divorced, tries to connect with his teenage daughter as he blows through town, but these scenes never transcend the generic poignance of such broken relationships. Alverson can go only so deep with his characters—but to compensate, Entertainment goes wide. Using a panoramic aspect ratio of 1:2.66, Alverson follows the comedian as he visits such local attractions as an orange grove, a fake town from the old west, a tour of California oil country with its relentlessly swinging derricks, and a graveyard for commercial airliners—including one whose fuselage has been torn in half. You can bet that, as the passengers fell to their deaths, they were watching some crappy movie with Courtney Love. v