Title: Punching the Clown
Directed By: Gregori Viens
Starring: Henry Phillips, Ellen Ratner, Matthew Walker, Audrey Siegel, Guilford Adams, Evan Arnold, Mark Cohen, Mik Scriba
Punching the Clown grew from a documentary director and writer Gregori Viens made with co-writer and star Henry Phillips back in 1997. The plan was to turn it into a fictionalized narrative feature and while they did find a super chic production company to fly them to London and Paris to secure financing, that’s about as far as they got. From there it was a typical indie filmmaking experience resulting in maxed out credit cards and the entire thing being shot on a semi-professional Panasonic HPX 2000 camera. Based on the final product, it’s quite obvious the duo was working with limited resources, but that in no way represents the caliber of the film. In fact, we’re lucky that that Hollywood studio never saw this production through for even the slightest imposition on Viens and Phillips’ creative freedom might have tainted this beautifully raw and hilarious gem of a film.
Phillips stars as Henry Phillips, a singing comedian. He describes his work as satire, but not satirical and folk-like, but not really folk music. Like Henry himself, there are some people out there that just don’t know what to make of him. When his life on the road the boils over in the form of a gig-gone-wrong involving a Christian miniature golf event, he opts to ditch traveling and settle down in LA and try to build a career there. He bunks down with his Batman impersonating brother (Matthew Walker), hires Ellen (Ellen Ratner) of Ellen Pinksy Management to represent him and begins trying to get his big break.
At first, things are a bit rough. Ellen starts Henry out with a non-paying gig at the Espresso Yourself Café and he literally gets kicked out of an industry party for trying to perform and drowning in feedback. Henry’s hope dwindles and, to make matters worse, he’s scolded for snagging his brother’s girlfriend’s super expensive soap in the shower. Oddly enough, a trip to the store for $50 suds winds up turning into an exchange with a singing star, which leads to an opportunity of a lifetime and Henry is called into X Company Records to chat about a record deal. What was once all Henry ever wanted turns into a tumultuous battle with the Hollywood machine that forces him to make the decision whether to sell out and make the big bucks or stick to what he believes in.
Punching the Clown is an unusual breed of comedy that pulls you in right from the start. The piece opens with a one-on-one interview between Henry and a radio DJ. The segment is presented throughout the movie and is the vehicle by which we explore Henry’s story. Not only does the combination prove to be quite effective in getting the audience from one point to the next in terms of the series of events, but it fleshes out the character of Henry quite nicely, which, in turn, makes the film overall far more enjoyable.
Why do we care about yet another struggling performer trying to make it big? Because Henry Phillips is such a likable guy. Just because he doesn’t suffer from a case of stage fright, doesn’t mean he’s particularly blunt off-stage. Henry is humble, soft-spoken, a big pushover and impossible not to sympathize with. Everything is laid out so clearly right from the start from Henry’s style to his history dating all the way back to when he was ridiculed for his big nose as a kid. Even today, he may not break down when an audience isn’t thrilled with his performance, but it certainly hits him where it hurts.
Just because we’ve got this main character that we honestly want to succeed, doesn’t mean he can go on the clichéd journey of a guy seeking fame. This is a testy subject for Punching the Clown, but Viens and Phillips handle it almost flawlessly. Much of the film is dedicated to poking fun at the all-too-familiar horror story of a starving artist’s effort to make it to the top while the rest is as honest as a serious family drama. It’s amusing to watch the record executive badmouth Henry while he’s in the recording studio and watches behind soundproof glass, but as you laugh, there’s a little twinge in your heart that almost makes you feel guilty for giggling at poor Henry’s expense. On the other hand, there are quite a few moments that don’t go for your gut and let you enjoy the straight humor of his act. A good portion of the film shows Henry’s live performances, which are awkwardly hilarious. This is a guy who sings songs about not picking on nerds in high school because they could get their dad’s gun and kill you; how else would you describe it?
Punching the Clown is an entertaining and enjoyable ride from beginning to end, but there are a few bumps in the road in between. Technical flaws like awkward staging go mainly unnoticed thanks to the magnetism of the main character and even some weaker performances are overlooked, but the one element that’s glaringly underdeveloped is Henry’s love interest. Becca (Audrey Siegel) works at the Espresso Yourself Café and quickly becomes the object of Henry’s affection. She’s somewhat intrigued, but Henry’s inability to talk to women causes a serious rift between the two. It’s a little hard to imagine any woman not falling for such a nice guy and even more unbelievable that it’s his brother, not Henry, that drives Becca away completely. Punching the Clown could have done without the romance entirely, but the film is so enjoyable it would have been worthwhile to add a few minutes to the runtime and flesh out their relationship a bit more.
Regardless, Punching the Clown is simply a fantastic time. The combination of comedy, satire and honesty is brilliant and makes for a hilariously heart-warming experience. It isn’t just a movie about some guy looking for a way to kick start his career; it’s about a guy you feel like you know personally and in this case, that connection makes all the difference.
By Perri Nemiroff