Middle Man

(USA 2016)

“No price is too high to pay for a good laugh.”

—Fatty Arbuckle

Lenny Freeman (Jim O’Heir) is a wussy ageing milksop who quits his job as an accountant to pursue a career in standup comedy after his mother (Barbo K. Adler) dies. The problems with his plan are numerous. For one, his idea of comedy comes from old radio greats of the 1930s and 1940s—hardly cutting edge or relevant stuff. Further, Lenny has led a sheltered life with his mother. He’s naive. He has no confidence. He isn’t funny. He isn’t particularly perceptive: he doesn’t quite get it when, say, he’s being insulted or threatened. To make matters worse, he’s never even performed for an audience.

Driving from Peoria, Illinois, to Las Vegas in his mother’s 1950s Olds, Lenny picks up a shady hitchhiker (Andrew J. West)— aptly and cornily named “Hitch”—who claims to manage comedians and offers to get Lenny on the very TV show for which he’s on his way to an audition. They make a contract, and Hitch takes Lenny to The Yuck Stop, a desert roadside club in fictitious Lamb Bone, Nevada, to test his material at open mic night. Spoiler alert: Lenny sucks, and the rough crowd is vicious.

Somehow, the corpse of the nastiest heckler (Danny Belrose) is inside Lenny’s trunk in the morning. Lenny thinks he killed him and spends all day in the desert unsuccessfully attempting to dump the body. Hitch pushes Lenny—unglued and soaked in sweat and blood—back onto the Yuck Stop stage, where he confesses to the murder. The crowd takes it as schtick, and this time loves Lenny. Thus begins a killing spree that benefits Lenny’s act more and more with each murder.

Screenwriter and first time director Ned Crowley is onto a good idea with Middle Man, an exploration of selling one’s soul for the spotlight. He references the Coen Brothers, David Lynch’s Blue Velvet, David Fincher’s Fight Club, and perhaps in a sense Alfred Hitchcock’s Rope. I particularly love sick jokes and dark humor, and Crowley liberally applies both throughout. The execution here is uneven, though. The dialogue really shines, but some characters are disproportionately more interesting than others. Hitch’s motive is probably ambiguous on purpose, but it nagged me and got in the way of fully enjoying the film. Most unfortunately, main character Lenny gets old after awhile. Watching his confidence soar in a romantic subplot with his rival standup’s girlfriend, Grail (Anne Dudek), starts out well enough but soon fizzles badly.

Middle Man takes a decidedly sinister turn about 20 minutes before its ending, which is predictable and not as weird or harrowing as Crowley might have intended. Overall, though, this is a respectable debut that doesn’t take itself too seriously—that’s the most refreshing thing about it.

Screening followed by a live discussion with director Ned Crowley and actor Jim O’Heir.

104 minutes
Not rated

(AMC River East) C+

Chicago International Film Festival

http://www.middlemanmovie.com

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