How would you market Henry Phillips? Is he a novelty folk-rock singer? A stand-up comedian with a musical shtick? Or do both descriptions trivialize his deadpan blend of observational spoken-word riffs and irreverent guitar ballads about life, love, rejection, and the end of the world? A partly biographical, drolly fabricated comedy, Punching the Clown stars Phillips as a partly biographical, drolly fabricated version of himself, and may be the funniest movie ever made about trying to hold on to one’s artistic integrity in an image-obsessed world.
Co-writer/star Phillips and director Gregori Viens open their ramshackle, HD-shot delight with the first in a recurring series of radio-interview excerpts, as our troubadour hero recalls to a late-night DJ how he took the L.A. plunge after a futile tour of podunk clubs and pizza parlors in flyover country. With a mellow, innocent charm and soft-spoken voice (perfectly unassuming for singing vicious-humored songs about bitch exes), Henry confesses nonchalantly on-air about his upbringing, insecurities, and relationships, a framing device that helps hold the movie’s narrative together.
Punching the Clown is a classic chronicle of Tinseltown toil, peppered with dive-bar footage of what might be Henry’s real-life sets, which are then thematically tied back to the story like an episode of FX’s Louie, but without the miserablism. Couch-surfing with his brother (Matthew Walker), a wannabe actor who dresses as a low-rent Batman for kiddie parties, Henry signs with the first delusionally confident agent (Ellen Ratner) to show any interest. A trial run at an open-mic night and mortifying one-off gigs come next, leading up to a deranged series of miscommunications, in which the same conversation that gets Henry signed by a low-level A&R douchebag mutates in the retelling until the entire Entertainment-Media Complex boots him out of town for being a neo-Nazi (which he isn’t).
That particular long-form gag, launched from an uncomfortable exchange about a bagel, says more about the Hollywood social network than The Social Network: It’s only through cell phones, passed Post-it notes, and veranda lunches that information is conveyed, as if the showbiz world were so connected that the Internet needn’t have been invented. A sharper joke, shot in a single take at a chic party, exposes the whole phony pecking order in a cleverly staged succession of blow-offs: An opportunistic poseur excuses himself to walk away from a lesser poseur, only to strike up a conversation with another eye-roller who quickly loses interest.
But for all this industry satire, Punching the Clown is at its shrewdest when it focuses on Henry’s esoteric artistry and inability to compromise. Though the title is slang for masturbation—a throwaway reference to a successful shock-songster who writes asinine parodies about farts and getting “guitar-ded,” and whom the record label asks Henry to be more like—is a misnomer for a film that is anything but indulgent. Considering that it’s been on the festival circuit since Slamdance ’09, where it won an audience award but made only small waves in other cities, Punching the Clown mirrors Henry’s act: a minor triumph whose cult following doesn’t yet know it exists.