Film Review: Punching the Clown

A quiet jewel of smart, unexpected laughs…as old vaudevillians would say, "It's funny because it's true."

In Larry David fashion, the real-life comic songwriter Henry Phillips plays a version of himself, with no enthusiasm to curb, in Punching the Clown, a picaresque wander through hole-in-the-wall gigs, a fortuitous Hollywood record contract, a gossipy grapevine that dooms his career before it takes off, and a roadside reunion that gives a little bit of hope. Sometimes a little bit is all you need. Much gentler and funnier than The Wrestler, it takes the same skewed yet loving look at a career that can kill you but you love too much to leave.

The film is framed around a Candide-like innocent whose pretty, melodic folk songs quickly twist down warped if perfectly logical paths. "You are the blossom / I am the vine" begins one innocent madrigal, which gradually segues to "You are the oyster / I am the pearl … irritating you inside / covering me with your shiny mucus-like substance until I shine / sweet little oyster of mine." And then pretty soon it's a love song about a host organism and unicellular dinoflagellate algae. Through it all, Phillips is like a wide-eyed Smothers brother, singing lyrics that include every one of George Carlin's seven-words-you-can never-say-on-television, and then some.

Taking up an offer from his brother Matt (Matt Walker) to crash on his couch in L.A., Henry finds a low-budget, mother-hen manager (Ellen Ratner) who sneaks him into a Hollywood party, where director Gregori Viens stages an ingenious roundelay where the assembled company, each in turn trying to meet-and-greet their way up the food chain, gets turned away in an escalating progression in favor of someone higher up. It's a throwaway bit, narrated in Henry's oblivious ironic voiceover, but it captures desperate career jockeying with precise details and genuine empathy, even as it keeps its anthropological distance. In a similar miracle of blocking and plot, Henry scores a record deal via a Rube Goldberg series of quirks, demands, circumstances and misunderstandings that climax in a literally inspirational punch line.

Droll and sardonic, the movie acknowledges the vagaries of fate and bad luck by way of snowballing grapevine gossip that feeds false rumors of Henry being a neo-Nazi folksinger whose songs deny the Holocaust. One day you're up, the next you're down, and some days, apparently, you're the most evil man in showbiz—but none of it has anything to do with talent or perseverance.

The movie’s message might seem depressing, but co-writers Viens, a film teacher and documentarian, and Phillips, who began this project as a same-name documentary in 1997, keep their satiric soap bubble aloft, and it's a joy to experience. Audiences who liked the marvelous A Mighty Wind should appreciate this tighter-focused variation on that theme, as should anyone who loved the too short-lived STARZ series "Party Down." Enjoy the songs, and be glad you're not in L.A.