A modern take on the clown’s tragedy, Tom Shkolnik’s The Comedian is short on laughs but strong on introspection.
Les Enfants Terribles by Mark Wilshin
CAUTION: Here be spoilers
There’s a manifesto behind Tom Shkolnik’s debut feature The Comedian and its underlying theme is truth. Characters bear their actors’ real names, public performances are genuine and real spaces carry on undisturbed, their purpose intact. Only one take is allowed filmed by two cameras at most, and time and place should not be faked. It’s a ruthless Dogme style regime to conjure truth from the smoke and mirrors of cinema. And yet, it’s an infinite line what with casting actors, rehearsing improvisation and generating story. But with its not-so-merry band of wannabes, Shkolnik’s snapshot of a generation of comedians, artists and musicians isn’t so much a landscape of London loserville as a self portrait, and brightly unsettling.
A cancer insurance call-centre salesman by day and a struggling stand-up comic by night, Ed (Edward Hogg) shares an apartment with singer Elisa (Elisa Lasowski) and strikes up a relationship with a young painter on a bus after a gig. But before too long the rug is pulled from beneath his feet when his job is put at risk from his self-loathing negativity, his love affair with Nate (Nathan Stewart-Jarrett) doesn’t stand a chance, undermined by self-indulgent jealousy and fear, and Elisa evicts him, no longer able to cope with their fake straight relationship. Ed’s thirty-something life, it seems, is already falling apart, but following a taxi ride with a driver from Zimbabwe, there’s a glimmer of hope that things will improve.
Like sitting ducks all in a row, Tom Shkolnik, in his darkly luminous The Comedian shoots down all of Ed’s sacred cows; his dreams of becoming a stand-up comedian, his hopes of a relationship, his job as a salesman, his home, his close friend Elisa, his family and his sense of self, depressingly inadequate and weak. There’s nowhere to hide as Ed’s soul is gradually laid bare, awkwardly familiar in its late-night going-nowhere conversations, its brave faced optimism that one’s dreams might find fulfilment, and its imperfect identities, too afraid and cowardly to step outside their emotional comfort zone. As such, The Comedian is the portrait of a generation. And like Ed’s rendition of Que Sera Sera, it’s a generation not looking for good looks or fortune, but fame.
With his trio of characters, painter, musician and witty wordsmith however, The Comedian resembles more a self portrait, the facets of a filmmaker split into multiple personalities. And there’s even a hint of the director too in Ed’s call-centre boss, bullish and demanding, organising a reading of the telephone script and disappointed when his cast don’t take it seriously enough. But it’s Edward Hogg’s soul-searching performance that really shines a light into the darker recesses of the filmmaker’s soul – painfully critiqued by the compere for his failed gardening gags, and realising Shkolnik’s achievements when in the final-reel taxi journey, his script allows for a kind of hope that things will be OK.
As a queer film, Shkolnik’s decision to make Ed gay is laudably uncamp and Nathan Stewart-Jarrett is spot-on with his insolent tone, piercing looks and subtle gestures. Their relationship is authentic – one of secret caresses and hushed whispers – but it doesn’t quite plumb the emotional depths and Ed’s homosexuality veers on becoming a byword for confusion. It only adds to Ed’s maelstrom of conflicts, but like the episodes of Deal Or No Deal Ed ends up watching, The Comedian is all about risk. Ed slowly steels himself to hit rock bottom with only the faintest hope of rising again, while Shkolnik’s film, shot with only one take, inevitably risks failing, and the scene of homophobic preaching on the bus feels particularly rootless.
It’s almost unremittingly bleak, a dark mirror excavating the faults and illusions of a grown-up generation X’s rambling dreams. But out of this darkness, Shkolnik also summons a very cinematic, life-giving light. And the two-handed scenes between Ed, Elisa and Nathan are particularly strong. They never reach the quirky freshness of the Nouvelle Vague it feels (with his manifesto) Shkolnik might be aiming for, but they’re honest, profound and at times brutal. The Comedian might not always be a barrel of laughs, but it’s a comedy of life’s most painful and uncomfortable errors.
The Comedian is released on 31st May 2013 in the UK