In Bad Fever, Dustin Guy Defa’s sad-sack indie drama about loneliness and urban ennui, a stand-up routine becomes an outlet for personal pain, the stage a place to unload baggage. At least that’s why Eddie (Kentucker Audley), a socially inept twentysomething who still lives at home, seems to gravitate toward a local comedy club, where he yearns for an opportunity to perform. That his material is aggressively, painfully unfunny makes Eddie something of a tragic figure, a man woefully unsuited for what he believes is his vocation. Eddie supports himself and his mother with part-time labor work, a job for which he appears no better suited, and spends much of his free time roaming a barren, almost eerily vacant Salt Lake City, stuttering comic nothings into an old tape recorder. Much like Aaron Katz’s Portland-set Cold Weather, Bad Fever‘s most salient feature is its evocative portrayal of Defa’s hometown, depicted with intimacy, if not fondness; it’s hardly picturesque, but one gets a palpable sense of Salt Lake as a lived-in, familiar place.
Unfortunately, precious little else in Bad Fever feels even marginally believable, including its roughly sketched lead. Deigning to elide both backstory and motivation is by now a shopworn strategy for indie minimalists like Defa, but he doesn’t do his protagonist any favors by refusing to even suggest a coherent inner life in its place. (At least in Steve McQueen’s Shame and Julia Leigh’s Sleeping Beauty, both widely criticized for omitting character detail in a similar fashion, the omissions had a conceptual and ideological basis.) When Eddie develops an infatuation for Irene (Eleonore Hendricks), a pugnacious young drifter living in an abandoned school, the innocence and candor with which he approaches the relationship should endear him to us. But because we know little of Eddie and even less of Irene (and because their lives are presented as static and immutable only until the point at which they meet), the connection fails to even register as change. If we’re to assume that Eddie has been alone since meeting Irene, we need more to go on than the 10 or so minutes he spends on screen without her; as it stands, without a hint of a life beyond the borders of the frame, Eddie feels less like a person than a routine.
Eddie’s inevitable stand-up debut is the only event Bad Fever‘s wafer-thin narrative can shuffle toward, and its badness, an exaggerated disaster of post-Office awkwardness, erupts in a manner too precise and studied to resonate as real. The parallel drawn between a bad comedy performance and an outright mental breakdown is one of the film’s few interesting ideas, but it’s one articulated much more clearly and effectively in Martin Scorsese’s underrated The Kind of Comedy, another film in which an unfunny comic takes on a tragic dimension. Neither Audley’s performance as Eddie nor Robert De Niro’s performance as Rupert Pupkin feel particularly “real” (both are cartoons, in their own way), but the latter at least seems to express an emotional truth, one of desperation and pain. Audley’s turn as Eddie, on the other hand, feels like posturing, an act of stand-up. There’s a paucity of thought and feeling here that’s irredeemable. Rather than express any emotional truth of its own, Bad Fever merely adopts an attitude that resembles one. That it thinks that’s good enough is a shame.