Like grad school or that cave in The Empire Strikes Back, what you get out of Rick Alverson's bold and desolate Entertainment depends on what you put into it. It's less a film you watch than a breakdown episode you try to get through, a bottomed-out desert lulu that manages to make its 110 minutes pass like the worst month of your life. It's slow, seamy, pained, sometimes hallucinatory, a dismal sort of fantasy camp for anyone who might like to tour the Mojave's diviest bars as a depressed and detested stand-up comic, sleeping in a car and passing out on the floors of rest-area bathrooms. It's thrilling but also sometimes so dull you can feel your mouth going stale as you wait for something to happen — but also so tense you'll probably hope that nothing actually does. The only thing more distressing than the stillness are the incidents.
It's above all an event. You know the way you can walk out after even a thoughtful, accomplished drama — and then never think of it again? Entertainment will stain you, grub you up, maybe ruin your week. If that sounds like a compliment, it is one, just as it's a warning.
Gregg Turkington stars as his longtime alter ego Neil Hamburger, a phlegmatic comic in a ratty tux whose bombing non-jokes are like IEDs built from Henny Youngman's leftovers: "Why don't rapists eat at TGI Fridays?" he says, not really asking. "Because it's hard to rape with a stomachache!" Then, amid oppressive silence, he either plows ahead with more or entreats the crowd to forget their miserable lives and smile. Hecklers get dressed down in the foulest of terms, at excruciating length.
The routine is real, in its way, a sort of stand-up Tony Clifton: Turkington has played the character for a decade for audiences in the know and not. In Entertainment, trickily, Turkington isn't precisely playing Hamburger, even as he performs Hamburger's set. Here, he's playing a man who isn't Turkington who plays Hamburger, apparently without Turkington's self-awareness or success. The audiences in Entertainment are mostly desert barflies who look as if they weren't expecting a comedy show at all, especially not one that peaks with a gag about E.T. loving the taste of semen. Every set gets ugly save for the first — and that's the one he does at a prison.
When not onstage, this Hamburger slumps through the Mojave's tourist sites and resists connection with the couple of people who seem to care for him. These include a godawful clown/mime opening act (Tye Sheridan), who somehow wins the crowds over with hopping and masturbation, and a supportive cousin, played by John C. Reilly, who offers the only performance in the movie that viewers will all laugh at together. (The other laughs wait for the sympathetic to mine them from awkward silences as wide as the Mojave horizons.) Reilly's goofball sweetness is a palate-cleanser: Good lord, he's funny when, trying to find something nice to say after Hamburger's set, he remarks, "You're putting yourself out there!" Then he starts quizzing the comic about his business plan.
The hilarity of that is undercut by the existence of the film itself. In real life, this act has been remunerative, even celebrated — and, now, immortalized in an arthouse provocation. But the film is no ancillary marketing victory lap. It has stature and weight, and it demands for its duration that we reckon with the Hamburger persona not as with-it anti-comic performance art but as a real guy trying to express something true to him. Outside his verbal inventiveness, the loathsome Hamburger is not really all that far from the lost souls you'll see at actual open-mic nights, attempting to alchemize, through showbiz magic, their hatred of self and of the world into something like the love of the crowd.
Alverson isolates his comic in the frame, often shooting him from just behind the back of his stringy-slick head — we see the audience before him, looking anyplace but at him. The lighting, often sickly yellows, suggests that a misery has settled over the bars they sit at. We also see him alone among tourists, visiting a ghost town or an airplane graveyard: He seems almost comfortable, maybe even moved, in the places where people used to be. Alverson emphasizes the world's vastness and Hamburger's smallness. Once, Hamburger attempts small talk, to a hotel clerk, and it's funnier than any of his jokes: "Can you answer for me, did this used to be a Days Inn?"
Sometimes he makes phone calls to a woman we discover is his daughter, always leaving a message, sounding raw and human. But the film is never sentimental, and it does to us what he does to those who have turned up for his shows: It rubs our faces in the sad mess of it all. Every half-hour or so the film bottoms out, becomes bleaker still, defies us to guess whether its happenings are real or not: Why do we see him, on occasion, in a spangled Nudie suit and cowboy hat? Who are the unclothed adult swingers who play Marco Polo with flashlights on a pitch-black night? Is every stranger truly as threatening as they seem? Why is he a guest, apparently, on the Spanish-language sitcom where a plump patriarch huffs from an oxygen tank like he's in Blue Velvet? The filmmaking often suggests Lynch, both in unsettling beauty and in escalating disorientation — think the life unraveling in Inland Empire, but with jokes, desert vistas, and horrifying moments of a crowd you're addressing not even being willing to meet your eyes. When I finally shook Entertainment, I felt compelled to force my way through it again.
Starring Gregg Turkington, Annabella Lwin, Tye Sheridan, and John C. Reilly. Directed by Rick Alverson. Written by Rick Alverson, Gregg Turkington, and Tim Heidecker. 110 minutes. Rated R. Opens Friday, November 20, at Lake Worth Playhouse (713 Lake Ave., Lake Worth; 561-586-6169; lakeworthplayhouse.org). Also available on demand.