Those unamused by director Rick Alverson's "The Comedy" will either adore his newest, "Entertainment," or loathe it even more. That previous 2012 fest-anointed film brandished its toxic Brooklyn hipster sensibilities to test audiences, but to fitfully shoulder-shrugging ends. Now, this taste for provocation has graduated and become a marvelous beast, a singular film that will stand as one the year's very best. "Entertainment" is a mix of Michael Haneke's antagonistic approach with Andy Kaufman's self-aware style, centered on a lonely comedian who tells jokes about Carrot Top shooting himself in the head.
The movie is observant, usually from a very long distance, of a man (a perfectly blank-faced Gregg Turkington) traveling through empty southwest America. We first meet him as he climbs into the abandoned skeleton of an airplane, one of dozens left as a tourist attraction in the desert. Later in the movie, we watch him quietly amble through deserted towns, relics of a different time that still stand, for whatever reason. Moving him through the desert is his livelihood, telling jokes as a greased-up, Frank Sinatra Jr.-inspired abrasive comedian in a tuxedo, who growls some of his jokes and cradles at least two drinks when slowly delivering crude one-liners. The man doesn't do much else for his life other than this, and we're not sure he could. He is a walking time capsule.
Outside of the movie, this on-stage presence is known as Neil Hamburger, the spirit of his performance gravely informing the gorgeous, cavernous heart of Alverson's film. Having seen Hamburger recently in Chicago, the obscure madness of "Entertainment" makes more sense. As entertaining as he may be, Hamburger's set resists arc. He walks on stage, tells his acerbic jokes, sometimes berates unruly bar patrons, and then his set ends. "Entertainment" spins a near-masterpiece from this inspiration, about the one-note, repetitive nature of life, and how it can be inescapable. It is a fantastically vivid portrait of purgatory as hell.
The script by Turkington, Alverson and Tim Heidecker is a comedian's version of Haneke's "Funny Games," meant to be uncomfortable for those coming to the film with comic or art-house expectations. "Entertainment" embraces humdrum to the most abrasive point with sequences that are equally obvious and oppressive. For example, The Comedian's first performance is in a prison, introduced standing behind bars as if he were locked up in there as well. His audience is a crowd of orange-suited inmates, who clap at the command of a trolling opening act clown played by Tye Sheridan (a breakout role for him if he didn't already have 500 of those). All meaning you could want is right there, uncompromised. Alverson manages to make a film where neither subtext or text really exist.
This invigorating perspective from the script is completed by the genius cinematography from Lorenzo Hagerman. For "Entertainment," he traps the viewer in The Comedian's completely isolated headspace by filming the surrounding Mojave Desert on a massive scope, its sand dunes pale like a rotting corpse. Or, by capturing vast anonymity, as Hagerman fills the screen with what seems like a hundred oil rigs (of course, we watch Gregg stare at one for an extended amount of time). The only glimpse of life within color as Gregg trails this eternally empty landscape is his faded yellow Chinese restaurant cap; at nighttime, especially when performing, the black colors become disorienting, if not violent, while the whites are angelic, although often obscured by hazy lensing.
Despite its careful doling out of co-stars John C. Reilly, Amy Seimetz, Michael Cera and Tim Heidecker for its expecting fans, "Entertainment" is far from any con. Like Sofia Coppola's "Somewhere," it is spacious, but with a careful sensibility to every shot, meticulous in color and heartfelt in length; all focused on the emptiness within ourselves, in our amusements, and in our surroundings. "Entertainment" completely owns the mundane, and gives it a new name.