Part comedy, part dive bar concert film, there's a reason why Punching the Clown won the audience award at this year's Slamdance Film Festival (and has a chance to do the same at the Gen Art Film Festival): quite simply, it's just a damn good time. Based on the very real, very uncomfortable and very unfortunate life of up-and-coming comedic folksinger Henry Phillips, Punching the Clown is a low-budgeted ball of squishy hilarity that's easily digestible and destined to become an audience favorite. Following the screening I attended, director Gregori Viens said they were talking with different cable networks about making a deal to air the film on television with it cut up into episodic form. While I'm all in favor of getting this tasty nugget out there for all to see, someone has to pony up a little cash and chuck this sucker into theaters for at the very least a limited run. Punching the Clown is definitely a gotta-see-it-with-an-audience kinda flick.
And it feels awesome to say that without having to next mention some ludicrous amount of effects work, an obnoxious budget or a naked A-list actress. The film is like a buffet of comedy, with the audience member strolling through, sampling a set up, a pay off, a song, a cliched plot device and a little red meat along the way. You'll look at the guy next to you -- mouth full of the previous joke -- and you'll both nod knowingly and possibly high-five. That's the type of film it is; one of those with a tattoo that reads, "F*ck it, you're either with me or you're not" After traveling around the country playing solo gigs in dirty bars and dingy pizza shops, comedic folksinger Henry Phillips (playing himself) decides to head to Los Angeles, crash on his brother's couch (who's already crashing with his bossy girlfriend) and try to make something happen, career-wise.
His brother Matt, a struggling actor currently starring as Batman in Your Kid's Next Birthday Party, is able to fix Henry up with an eccentric low-rent talent manager named Ellen, and before you know it our hilarious singer-songwriter lands a regular spot during the local coffee house's daily open mic, sorta falls for the cute coffee house hostess and bumbles his way toward a record contract. Of course the "big time" doesn't come easy, and when a conversation starter about where to get good bagels somehow -- through the magic of Los Angeles rumorville -- pegs our musician as a Jew-hatin' Nazi extremist, Henry's tiny career is suddenly in jeopardy. Can he reverse the bad buzz, become an overnight sensation and get the girl?
Punching the Clown is at its best when Henry is up on stage performing one of his many songs, most of which have to do with love. Whether he's singing to a local LA crowd about his bitch of an ex-girlfriend or to a group of church-folk about a transvestite hooker he once slept with, Henry's ability to deliver raunchy lyrics in the most pleasant of ways is part of what carries the humor in the film a long way. And since the funniest moments are based on real events, they're more genuine and don't feel scripted. If Punching the Clown stumbles, though, it does so in its quest to go a more commercial route. The "love story" angle wasn't as fleshed out as it could've been, and, as such, the audience isn't very invested in it.
But aside from a bump here and there, Punching the Clown is quite smooth in its delivery. Obviously Henry Phillips and his anti-romantic original songs are the true stars of the film, but credit also goes to Matthew Walker (as Henry's brother) and Mark Cohen (as Henry's archnemesis, Stupid Joe) for their scene-stealing moments. As a director, Viens does a good job of not letting the camera get in the way, while also surprising us with a few fun gimmicks -- like the multi-person (all-in-one-shot?) conversation that takes place between the uptight, I'm-so-much-better-than-you patrons of a typical stuffy Los Angeles party.
Punching the Clown may not have the budget or the cast to entice a major theatrical release, but it's easily one of the funniest films I've seen this year and certainly worthy of a visit to your local theater, assuming someone eventually picks it up and allows you to see it with an audience.
For more on Punching the Clown, visit the film's official website (including three clips) over here.