Film Review – Punching the Clown
In the opening scene of the 2009 indie comedy Punching the Clown, we’re introduced to Henry Phillips, a singer-songwriter whose work is mostly of the jokey, satirical sort. He’s doing a radio show at 3 AM, which sums up immediately the state of his career: maybe kind of improving? Maybe?
Henry’s been on the road, doing the coffee house/bar/bowling alley/wherever will have him sort of self-made tour. Now he’s in LA crashing with his brother (an aspiring actor who plays Batman at kiddie parties to pay the bills) and his brother’s girlfriend (generic awful girlfriend character). He’s thinking he may stick around for a bit and try to make something happen. But Henry’s mellow attitude and dry sense of humor don’t make for the sort of personality that can face the Hollywood machine easily.
Henry meets with a potential manager, Ellen Pinsky. She is middle-aged and has pictures of balloons on her business cards, which is another nice way to say a lot about a character and their situation in a very brief set-up. She tries hard to play the Hollywood game and talk the Hollywood talk, but there’s an edge that is missing.
Henry and Ellen attend a party, where the dreaded networking begins. Until this point, the movie had been amusing enough; but I knew I was really in for the ride after a brilliant sequence here. Party-goer after party-goer blows off their conversation, everyone in search of someone bigger and better to speak to, no one satisfied with their lot. It’s perfectly juxtaposed with narration of Henry telling the DJ during his radio interview about how friendly everyone has been in LA. “You’ve been here like, what…?” asks the DJ. “Two weeks,” answers Henry. The DJ gives a tiny laugh. “Just wait.”
Of course, the DJ is right, and everything will not be coming up roses for Henry as our story progresses. One of the more clever “overheard misunderstandings” I’ve seen in a film leads a smarmy record company exec who was rude to Ellen at the party to believe that a famous singer is a huge fan of Henry’s. Thus, the exec must snap him up. Henry briefly questions how he could be going from the newest fixture at an open mic night at a place called Espresso Yourself to signing a record deal in two weeks, but that eternal optimist Ellen assures him it’s just meant to be. However, what a misunderstanding giveth, another misunderstanding can taketh away…and Henry is in for a doozy of another misunderstanding that casts him in just about the most unflattering light possible. He must then try to keep controversy from crushing his chance at success. (As well as, of course, his chance to hook up with the cute server at open mic night.)
Throughout the film, we hear several of Henry’s songs. The songs are genuinely funny, and these interludes are something to look forward to, working with the pace of the film rather than feeling forced into it. And Henry is charming when on stage, telling sly jokes of the sort that somehow fall flat when tried in real conversation. We see how stage-Henry is much more comfortable than real-life-Henry, and don’t question why he keeps up the struggle to find success in this odd little niche of the music world.
What I didn’t realize as I was watching the film was that our lead actor is Henry Phillips—he plays himself amongst a cast of fictional roles based on his own experiences. When I figured that out, I was even more impressed that the film works so well. Skewering LA culture has been done before, but I haven’t seen it with this particular tone, which eschews snarkiness even as Henry faces the most ridiculous of circumstances. Instead, we have a sort of bittersweet, reluctant affection for the absurdity of it all. There are times in the final act of the movie when the satire seemed to stretch a little far; but then, I have never been chewed up and spit out by Hollywood hype. And even in these arguably over-the-top moments, the humor remains consistent and satisfying.
Beyond the engaging story and successful comedy, the film is simply well-made. Henry Philipps and director/co-writer Gregori Viens pulled together all of the elements needed for a solid film. The acting is high-caliber, with performances from Ellen Ratner as Ellen Pinsky and Matthew Walker as Henry’s brother almost stealing the show. Scenes are deftly edited to cut away at just the right moment and leave out the bits you can fill in for yourself, so that nothing ever drags. And the film simply looks good, in a way that should instill both hope and fear in beginning indie filmmakers out there: here is where the bar is being set, and it’s not low.
If you have a chance to check out this film, I recommend it. The euphemistic title doesn’t reflect the skilled, mature storytelling or the clever humor. The film has won several awards at festivals, including the Audience Award for Best Feature at Slamdance in 2009. It is headed for a theatrical release in New York City beginning on October 22, 2010. Learn more at the official site.