Punching the Clown
directed by Gregori Viens
starring Henry Phillips, Ellen Pinsky
Independent, not in distribution
Henry (Henry Phillips) seems too nice and clean-cut to spend his life living in a car and singing satiric folk songs in dive bars. He’s your classic unappreciated genius, and like so many starving artists, he heads to L.A. for a shot at the big time. Crashing with his unemployable actor brother Matt (Matt Walker), he quickly hooks up with small time agent Ellen Ratner (Ellen Pinsky), and in two weeks he’s got a recording contract with X-Company Records. A chain of unintended errors set off by A&R man Fabian Mann (Guilford Adams) paints Phillips as an anti-Semitic neo-Nazi, plus he’s not “first line funny” like their other wunderkind, Stupid Joe (Mark Cohen). It’s awkward for everyone — the record company doesn’t believe in him, he’s lost control of his music, and Stupid Joe is stuck singing songs that take too long to pay off for his hyperactive audience. There’s only one option for Phillips — hit the road again and accidentally hook up with his crush Becca (Audrey Siegel) somewhere in central Oregon. At least he’s seen the USA in his Chevrolet.
Told from the perspective of late night DJ Captain Chaotic (Wade Kelly), Henry Phillips is a genuinely nice guy with a real talent, even if he’s more wooden than Larry King. Viens props up his film on the backs of the supporting actors — Ellen is enthusiastic and an immediate supporter, Matt is angry and untalented and emblematic of the failed newcomer to the City of Crooked Angels. Fabian seeps olive oil around his collar and even the Henry’s audiences make him look good — they laugh exactly when you do as they get the gimmick of each song. No one, not even the record execs, is really evil, it’s the network and value system of L.A. that spits Henry out and sends him back to a Holiday Inn lounge in Des Moines, New Mexico.
Phillips’ songs make this movie come alive. His Steven Wright deadpan delivery and Peter Gibbons spaciness only emphasizes the precise absurdity of songs like “I’m in Minneapolis, You’re in Hollywood” and “Standing on The Shoulders of Freaks.” He has three CDs out there if you Google his name, and I’m getting them all. Check out the movie if it ever gets a distributor — it’s pleasantly entertaining and filled with engaging performances.