Rarely do we see a film released as adventurous as Entertainment. The tone of even the most subversive films today, those directed by the likes of Lars von Trier and Yorgos Lanthimos, is comparable to that of slow filmmaking that emerged in foreign theaters after the war and was subsequently reproduced in various New Wave movements. Their understated editing and austere themes provoked audiences to reevaluate mainstream aesthetic values, which were dictated by commercial interests rather than artistic ones. Entertainment takes a less ambitious, if not equally subversive, route. The director, Rick Alverson, is sometimes upheld as an exemplar of post-ironic filmmaking, putting him alongside Charlie Kaufman and Noah Baumbach. Such filmmakers make fitting company, given everything about Entertainment, from its characters and plot to its music and editing, feels calculated to arouse our hatred, or at least make us feel uncomfortable while watching. The juxtaposition of sacred music, specifically, a choral arrangement of Ave Maria , and an utter loser's trek through the desert seems almost sacrilegious. To call the protagonist unsympathetic is an understatement.
There have been many aging entertainers throughout film, a recent example being Paolo Sorrentino's Jep Gambardella and most famously, Fellini's Guido Anselmi. The protagonist of Entertainment also comes to terms with being artistically unfulfilled, albeit its darker side. We are unsure whether to react with disgust or pity to his manners, which are not only physically repulsive but also psychologically inexplicable. Having run out of jokes during a set, he pretends to shoot the audience with a trophy by blowing raspberries at them. In another scene, he emerges from a birthday cake during a party and topples over in a crying fit. Any intrigue aroused by our unnamed comedian is due to the strangeness happening inside his mind, not outside it. In the absence of any apparent trauma, his breakdowns appear to be symptoms of something much stranger unreeling inside the mind.
Art is great not when it is merely pleasing to look at, but rather when it provokes strong reactions. Visceral repulsiveness of Entertainment matches its incomparable loneliness. The anonymous, bleached landscapes of California visited by the comedian recall the work of postwar American photographers Stephen Shore and William Eggleston, whose minimalist photographs evoke the alienation of contemporary life. The gold tinsel that decorates the stage where the comedian performs, like his comb-over, is a pitiful attempt to make up for his impotence, recalling the exaggerated banality of posh-lust or camp, though with a menace not captured by either.
The term dark comedy is often used to describe seemingly uncategorizable films. Entertainment is certainly uncategorizable, but far too idiosyncratic for fruitful speculation about its influences. There are many opportunities for Alverson to shock us, but he does not take them; instead of witnessing the excessive sex and gore characteristic of arthouse provocateurs, we see cheap bars, fake smiles, and scatological humor, all the while moving at a glacial pace unsure whether to laugh or scream.