Just in: The Comedian

Marking director Tom Shkolnik’s debut feature film, The Comedian centres on Ed, a call centre worker who part-times as a late night stand up in East London bars and shares an intimate friendship with flatmate, Elisa. When he meets a young artist, Nathan, they immediately start a passionate affair which threatens Ed’s relationship with Elisa.

The Comedian | Tom Shkolnik | 2012 | UK | 75 mins | 15

Ed is a terrible comedian. The funniest joke in his routine is “You know what else makes me sick? Bulimia”.  While that may be good for a brief chuckle, it swiftly gets worst. When Nathan tells him “you’re funnier on the bus” you have to agree. On the bus he’s witty and charming but on stage he’s desperately unfunny. That’s OK though, because The Comedian isn’t really about a comedian. It’s about a 30-something guy who’s distinguishing feature is that he is, to an extent, a comedian. Ed’s career as a comedian is not the film’s focus, instead it looks at his relationships with Elisa and Nathan and his discomfit at where he is in life.

His relationships certainly aren’t straight-forward (whose are?) – his friendship with Elisa is exceptionally close, while remaining firmly platonic. This causes problems because those around them struggle to understand the basis for their relationship – Nathan becomes jealous of Elisa and presses Ed on their past. “Has anything ever happened between you?” Nathan shouts. Ed pauses, probably trying to find a way to explain why Elisa is not a threat, but Nathan takes this as an admission of guilt. Elisa in turn sees Nathan as a threat and Ed’s failure to juggle their individual expectations of him pushes things to a breaking point.

The film doesn’t deal in broad strokes but allows its characters to reveal themselves through their actions, mannerisms and speech. There’s no delving into back stories and no exposition. I’m convinced that Ed’s attempt at being a stand-up has nothing to do to with thinking he’s any good at comedy, but a desperation to be doing something other than selling cancer insurance. This is my interpretation though, as the film doesn’t spell anything out. What The Comedian excels at is allowing the characters to come across naturally;  understanding their actions and feelings requires interpretation in the same way that figuring out why the people around us do what they do and behave the way they do does.

The film is also unnervingly accurate at depicting certain situations.: the awkwardness and nervousness of introducing friends to lovers and the twisted logic of drink fuelled nights out, for example. When Nathan begins to hit it off with Elisa and Steve, Ed’s friend from work, at the end of the night, Ed becomes unreasonably jealous; even though he was initially worried about the exact opposite happening. Though this is illogical it’s one of those stupid reactions people tend to exhibit when drunk.

This is one of the areas in which The Comedian distances itself from genre conventions – the script doesn’t need to pile on unreasonable obstacles that the characters must overcome in order to disrupt an initially happy relationship – instead Ed, Nathan and Elisa are more than capable of making a mess of it themselves, just as people do. Nor does the film ever rely on a suspension of disbelief, instead Shkolnik sets up his characters and lets them think, feel and behave like real people. 

He is helped in this regard by his actors who are uniformly excellent and deliver such convincing performances that at no point does anyone seem to be acting out a character so much as inhabiting it. Edward Hogg as Ed (all the characters share names with the actor playing them – I assume this helps the actors to act in as natural manner as possible)  is particularly good and this film serves as another reminder of what an underused actor he is. I first saw him in White Lightnin’, a criminally overlooked film in which he plays a nightmarish version of the ‘dancing outlaw’ Jesco White and was baffled that he didn’t receive any attention for the performance. 

All too often in films I find myself wishing that they would end at a particular point, not because I am bored or fed up with a film, but because I feel they have reached a certain emotional peak. A point at which the experiences of the characters, the drama of the plot and my own reaction to what is going on culminates in a moment that just feels right. Whether this is because the film has triggered a line of thought or questioning that I want to explore, or because it’s reached a point where any attempt to tidy things up and provide closure would detract from the emotional response it has provoked, doesn’t matter. What matters is that there comes a point in a film where I want that moment or that shot, to be the lasting impression I have of it. This almost never happens.

The Comedian, however, ends at the perfect point.

It’s hard to express how satisfying it is when that happens – it’s the feeling that you and the filmmakers share a common sensibility, that what they want to say with the film is what you want to hear. When The Comedian ended I couldn’t help but grin, not because the film had a particularly happy or positive ending; I’m not going to spoil what kind of ending it does have; but because it ended in a manner that I felt could not be improved upon. Rather than offering an easy resolution The Comedian maintains its honesty, both to the characters and the audience.

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