Title: The Comedian at the Friday
Writer-director: Brett Ryan Bonowicz
Starring: Chris Shields, Chad Jamian Williams, Laura Alexandra Ramos, Jessica Sherman
A Los Angeles-set indie flick which recently enjoyed its world premiere at the 14th annual Dances With Films festival, ‘The Comedian at the Friday’ offers up an almost serially listless look at an interesting and creative occupation. Instead of getting caught up in the vicarious or behind-the-curtain thrill of even a fringe comedian’s quirky, atypical lifestyle, an audience watching it is much more likely to go through and ultimately bog down in the first half of the seven stages of grief — denial, pain, anger, bargaining, depression, etcetera — than enjoy any sort of fulfilling entertainment, let alone cathartic uplift.
Gary Walden (Chris Shields) is a regional comic barely hanging on to the coat-tails of his friend Kenny Baker (Chad Jamian Williams), who stands on the precipice of breaking through to something even bigger, with a taping for his own comedy special looming on the short-porch horizon. As Kenny prepares and works on fine-tuning his material, Gary — struggling with a hackish cough, and depressed over the outlook of both his professional and personal lives — decamps with him for a week in Los Angeles, doing confrontational stand-up material at a much smaller club. Even a brief hook-up with an older club patron, Charlotte (Jessica Sherman), can’t seem to shake Gary’s funk. Meanwhile, Kenny’s girlfriend Maria (Laura Alexandra Ramos) eventually arrives in town, bearing news that could put his world into a spin.
Written and directed by Brett Ryan Bonowicz (star Shields also receives a story credit), ‘The Comedian at the Friday’ is a wearying and unconvincing exercise in pointlessness. While not without some moments of clever repartee in the dialogue, the movie suffers mainly from a yawning disconnect between its putative area of inquiry or focus and the reality of how its characters are accepted by all those around them. Gary is presented as something of a shock comic (he tells jokes about 9/11, and other taboo topics), but the material he works is neither embraced nor aggressively, angrily shunned by his audience. Additionally, it doesn’t match the loafers-and-beard, almost academic persona that Shields crafts. Are we to identify with Gary, over and beyond the comparably populist, goofy sets that Kenny offers up? Bonowicz doesn’t ever convincingly take a side, and while Gary is undeniably the film’s protagonist, Shields’ performance is never engaging or sympathetic enough to register on a deep level.
A word, too, about an irritating character detail that Bonowicz and Shields foist upon viewers — Gary’s perpetual coughing. It’s so persistent that one expects the movie to pivot into a medical drama, and have him be diagnosed with lung cancer at the end of the second act. But no, it never really pays off. And if it’s supposed to be metaphorical, it doesn’t work. It’s only irritating, on a massive scale.
Technical credits for this low-budget offering somewhat understandably suffer, but even more problematic than the film’s inability to create a convincing comedy club back-drop (which is admittedly a real problem for a movie of this milieu) is Bonowicz’s decision — perhaps purely as a cost-cutting measure, perhaps as an on-the-fly fix for a problem encountered during production — to route both sides of every phone conversation (of which there are many) through the devices used on screen. This jarring effect creates an additional wall between viewers and the characters, further degrading their plights. By the time Gary and Kenny actually break down late in the film and have an argument that delineates certain truths about their friendship and quiet rivalry — a scene which should have come about 40-45 minutes earlier — an audience might be wishing for the comparatively engaging histrionics of Pauly Shore… or something, anything to take them away from this sour ‘Friday’ evening gone wrong.
Written by: Brent Simon