Henry Phillips possesses a sharp wit that is both endearing and crude, a somewhat cynical wit he has honed by performing for too many years in front of too many bored drunks in too many one-horse towns. He suffers the self-imposed misfortune of being an intelligent man who has chosen to travel the American heartland as an itinerant singer-songwriter, even though his talents in that area are mediocre at best. As he himself clearly acknowledges in the wonderful film Punching the Clown, he is no Bob Dylan or Paul Simon. Nor would we want him to be. His goofy, second-rate songs and his naive quest for success are what endear him to us. We can relate to every frustration and every fledgling hope.
Henry's forte is the edgy, bawdy, irreverent, and (he hopes) funny acoustic ballad, and unwittingly performing such material one day in a pizza joint before an audience of "Miniature Golfers for God" brings him to recalculate the dividends his career has brought him. So he decides to move to L.A., crash on his brother's couch (of course the brother is a struggling actor), and find himself an agent: a middle-aged scrapper played superbly by Ellen Ratner, who describes Henry as "James Taylor on smack." When Henry points out to her that James Taylor really was on smack, she doesn't seem to understand his point. Moments like this are part of the fun.
In a radio interview taking place at 3 a.m. -- what time could have been more appropriate? -- Henry states his philosophy of life and art for the three or four somnambulistic listeners that must be out there somewhere:
Michelangelo apparently once said that if people knew how hard he worked, they wouldn't call him a genius. And I think with me it's sort of the opposite. You know, I think that if people knew how little I worked on this stuff, I don't think that they would say that I suck.
Henry is not getting any younger, and Hollywood is trying to eat him alive. All it takes is a small misunderstanding exaggerated through the rumor mill -- call it Bagel-gate if you will -- and he is vilified in the local press. Henry is a naif in the toughest of towns, and no one seems to be on his side except Ellen, his agent, and we're never too sure about her. All the satire is spot on. The sarcastic send-up of the subterranean realm of the music business -- the agents, the managers, all the hucksters -- is just brilliant.
In my younger days, I tried my hand at doing the singer-songwriter thing, and many of the scenes in the film are so familiar to me that they hurt. Ellen's frenetic pace and non-stop faux optimism are priceless. The milieu of the coffeehouse "Espresso Yourself" reminded me of every open-mic hootenanny joint I'd ever played, where most of the people I was singing for were other singers waiting to sing for me (if I stuck around long enough after my set to listen).
During Henry's one-demo recording session, the owner of the small record label won't even let Henry finish a verse before demanding something snappier. He wants Henry to be "funny" the way one of his other "artists," Stupid Joe, is funny: by being, of course, spectacularly stupid. And I think this addresses a larger concern. So many filmmakers today seem to equate humor with stupidity. But that is not the case with the people behind Punching the Clown. Subtlety trumps the broad stroke here, which makes every resulting laugh more satisfying.
And what comedy of this sort would be complete without at least a tad of a love story? The conversations Henry has with a pretty waitress are luminous studies of the awkward, hapless man bending over backwards to agree with the girl he is wooing, even though he is contradicting himself left and right and he knows she can see that. Henry is the fumbling, bumbling everyman that, let's face it, most of us are, although we would be hard-pressed to admit it, even to ourselves.
Punching the Clown, directed by Greg Viens and written by Viens and Henry Phillips, won several awards at various film festivals and will open to the general public at the Quad Cinema in New York City on Friday, October 22. If this movie is shown in a theater anywhere near you, please go out and support it. We need films like Punching the Clown to keep cinema vibrant and interesting. If this film is a success at the box office, it will send a message that there is a growing audience for smart independent films. There's too much of the same old same old out there. What Viens and Phillips offer is the equivalent of the great little paperback novel you sometimes find on a back shelf while browsing in your local independent bookstore, if indeed such a place still exists in your neighborhood. It's not War and Peace or Moby-Dick, but that's all right. Sometimes all you need is a little dusty gem to keep you going.