At the center of Rick Alverson’s Entertainment is a nameless comedian’s (Gregg Turkington) stand-up routine, which he brings to a string of barely filled dive bars around the Mojave Desert. Off stage, the man is a quiet, depressed, borderline alcoholic with zero charisma. Somehow, though, he’s even more off-putting before a crowd, making horrid rape jokes, verbally assaulting audience members, and delivering words like “legendary” in a tone that makes nails on a chalkboard sound like Bach concertos.
His is a shtick essentially identical to Turkington’s cult character Neil Hamburger, and if nothing else, Entertainment is a harrowing and strange act of self-excoriation. But this is more than a bleak comment on performance, as Alverson’s perfectly composed framings and eye for revealing symbols conjure a menacing perspective on how the titular occupation hulls out empathy and cultivates a particularly unsettling strain of cynicism.
When he’s not on stage or zoning out to Mexican sitcoms with a beer or mixed drink in hand, the comedian spends his free time on small-group tours of a field of oil pumps and an airplane graveyard, among other local spots. Alverson utilizes these activities to evoke the rotten, despondent inner life of the character, but also to subvert his own peerless images. (This is especially true of the pumps: towering, perfectly engineered mechanisms that drudge up the dark liquid underneath the surface.) Alverson’s imagery constantly alludes to an ocean of ugly, volatile emotions that are, in essence, fuel for his protagonist’s performance. His aggressively distasteful and annoying bits on stage suggest an attack on the audience, but as the film goes on, it seems clearer that his performance mode is a product of self-hatred.
When the comedian is at work, he seems to be summoning a personal reflection of himself, the physical embodiment of the anxiety and defensiveness he feels underneath the hot lights. As off-putting as the character is, the script makes a point of showing him attempting to change his barbed, disheartened perspective of a life in comedy, most pointedly in his interactions with a chromotherapist (Lotte Verbeek). The way she uses colors doubles as colored lenses that change the look of the film, inferring that Alverson is attempting to augment his own morbid and morose view of the world and entertainment in the same way as his lead character.
Most of the film, however, focuses on a certain empty stillness. Alverson tends to hold on shots of his characters from the back, gazing at the unchanging form of their hair. At one point, he specifically juxtaposes the long, greasy, clumped-together strands of the comedian against the soft, billowy top of his youthful opener, Eddie (Tye Sheridan).
As Entertainment progresses from the comedian’s uneasy reunion with his grossly rich cousin (John C. Reilly) to the end of the tour at a rich celebrity’s (Dean Stockwell) home, the imagery grows even more ghastly and cryptic, to the point where it becomes impossible to distinguish if the world’s ugliness is reality or a grisly projection of the comedian’s inner turmoil. There’s a tense scene between our antihero and a moody stranger (Michael Cera), and in the film’s most striking scene, Turkington’s character helps deliver a stillborn baby in a roadside bathroom. Alverson seems to be moving toward a Lynchian tone of outrageous, enigmatic alienation, edited into a nightmarish swirl of regret, anger, loneliness, and sheer exhaustion.
The comedian’s increasingly overwhelming despondency seems rooted in his estrangement with his daughter. The film is punctuated by scenes of him calling her and leaving messages, and never hearing back. These calls catch him in a vulnerable spot, and it’s clear that the character he creates on stage is also a reflection of himself as a deadbeat dad. Indeed, the stage is the only place where the man seems to have any real power, and that seems to be the root of this superbly ominous film.
Alverson doesn’t assuage the bitterness and bleak humor of his protagonist’s odyssey, nor does he suggest that this perspective is necessarily wise or altruistic. The final image of the film features the comedian cackling uncontrollably at a dream of himself starring on a popular Mexican sitcom, which adduces that popularity and acceptance is at once what the performer fights against and what he wants most of all out of this world.