Over the past couple of days, I watched two movies opening soon in NYC that represent the indie spirit at its best. One is a comedy called “Punching the Clown” that can be described as a mixture of HBO’s “Curb Your Enthusiasm” and “Flight of the Conchords”, but much funnier. The other is “Jolene”, a darkly comic picaresque tale based on an E.L. Doctorow short story about a young woman from the South who survives physical and psychological battering from a number of men until she lands on her feet as a comic book artist in Los Angeles determined to tell her life story as a comic book.
“Punching the Clown” stars Henry Phillips as a folk singer named Henry Phillips who performs his own satirical material. In other words, he is playing himself but with comic exaggeration. Early in the film, he gets a gig singing at a pizza parlor on the very night that a Christian Senior Citizens group is meeting. Unaware of who was in the audience, he performs “The End of the World”, a song with these lyrics:
Last night I was flipping channels
And I saw some tele-evange-preacher guy
Talking about some prophecies
And I think I heard him say
That tomorrow is the end of the world
So I drank my best bottle of wine
Because there’s no need to save the finer things in life
When tomorrow is the end of the world
Needless to say, the audience is left cold by his performance. Like so many aspiring entertainers have done in the past, he drives out to Los Angeles to seek his fortune and to advantage of his brother’s standing invitation to crash on his sofa. His brother Matt (Matt Walker), an aspiring actor, has yet to find success himself and ekes out a living dressing up as Batman for appearances at children’s birthday parties.
Matt introduces him to an agent named Ellen Pinsky (Ellen Ratner), who is a masterpiece of comic invention. When she tells Henry that she is going to describe him as James Taylor on smack to industry executives, he reminds her that this is redundant since Taylor was a heroin addict. She begs his pardon, but uses this tag in phone conversations promoting her client. Ellen Ratner, like Phillips and Walker, has an extensive background in stand-up. Although the press notes do not describe “Punching the Clown” as improvisatory, it has that feel—much like an episode of “Curb Your Enthusiasm”.
Like “Flight of the Conchord”, another comedy about underachieving folk singers, the humor in “Punching the Clown” is bone-dry, and relies on Henry Phillips simply brilliant performance of…himself. In real life, he is a bit more successful than his film equivalent, having performed on Comedy Central and ABC’s Jimmy Kimmel Live.
The movie was directed, produced and co-written with Gregori Viens, who has taught film in Los Angeles for a number of years. His students and teaching assistants participated in the making of the film and they should be proud of themselves.
30 years ago, just after dropping out of the Socialist Workers Party, I took a writer’s workshop class at NYU where the teacher made a point that has stuck with me over the years. He said that comedy writing is much harder than any other genre. Considering the crap that is billed as comedy nowadays, from Judd Apatow to Woody Allen for the better part of the last 3 decades, you really have to grab an opportunity to see something genuinely funny when it comes along. In one of the promotional squibs that appear on the cover of the screener I received from the publicist, Sarah Silverman describes it as “the best movie about comedy I’ve seen so far.” Damned right.
“Punching the Clown” opens tomorrow at the Quad in NYC and should not be missed.
* * * *
Like “Brokeback Mountain”, “Jolene” made its initial appearance as a New Yorker Magazine short story. Like many short stories, there is no dialog in Doctorow’s original. Screenwriter Dennis Yares has done a superb adaptation in this, his first produced script. He has fully captured the sardonic flavor of Doctorow’s tale that contains some of his best writing. The story was part of his 2004 collection “Sweet Land Stories”, that can be read—as usual—with gaping holes on Google. It begins:
She married Mickey Holler when she was fifteen. Married him to get out of her latest foster home where her so-called dad used to fool with her, get her to hold him, things like that. Even before her menses started. And her foster mom liked to slap her up the head for no reason. Or for every reason. So she married Mickey. And he loved her—that was a plus. She had never had that experience before. It made her look at herself in the mirror and do things with her hair. He was twenty, Mickey. Real name Mervin. He was a sweet boy if without very much upstairs, as she knew even from their first date. He had a heel that didn’t touch the ground and weak eyes but he was not the kind to lay a hand on a woman. And she could tell him what she wanted, like a movie, or a grilled-cheese sandwich and a chocolate shake, and it became his purpose in life. He loved her, he really did, even if he didn’t know much about it.
“Jolene” is directed in the spirit of pulp fiction and perhaps the comic book that the eponymous lead character dreams about. It is as lurid as a telenovela and sucks you in from the very beginning, like good gossip. Although I had always associated E.L. Doctorow with high-minded fiction about important social and political themes, this story reminds me of what a superb story-teller he is. As is the case with all successful story-writing since the days of Homer (leaving aside questions of whether it is art), you want to turn the pages to find out what happens next to the characters. It is what keeps you up reading through the night or makes you miss your subway stop. To its credit, the people who made “Jolene” have retained Doctorow’s grip on your attention.
After Jolene’s marriage to Mickey ends, she ends up in Phoenix working as a roller-skating waitress at a Dairy Queen. There she meets Coco Leger, the sleazy but handsome owner of a tattoo parlor who offers her a job as an apprentice tattoo artist. Throughout her unfortunate life, painting is the one thing that brings her happiness. She also enters into a bad marriage with Coco, bringing it to and end after his other wife shows up unannounced with her baby son one day. When he drives off with her, she busts up his parlor, steals money from his cash register and calls the cops on him, leaving a stash of his cocaine in full view. When she had first learned of his cocaine peddling, he defended himself by saying “no artist can make it in the USA unless he has somethin’ on the side.”
“Jolene” does not offer any profound insights into the human condition, but it is first rate entertainment, something that is in short supply at your local Cineplex. The movie opens on October 29th at the Village East Theater in NY, and in Seattle and Santa Fe on the same day. It also opens on November 5th at Laemmle’s Sunset Five in Los Angeles.