- Henry Phillips walks onstage in a scene from Gregori Viens new film “Punching the Clown.” (Photo: Viens Films, LLC)
In director Gregori Viens’ new comedy Punching the Clown, satirical folksinger Henry Phillips (both in real life and in this fictional narrative film) heads for Los Angeles, and his brother’s living room couch, when life on the road proves unsustainable. Henry usually wins over audiences with his raunchy and funny songs about soured relationships, but now and again a pizza parlor crowd of, say, Christian fundamentalists doesn’t appreciate his song about indulging in debauchery with a “tranny hooker” on the day before the end of the world.
In an L.A. of superficial relationships and wheeler-dealers (there’s a wonderful Hollywood party scene), Henry finds that his career is suddenly on the upswing — owing to a misunderstanding he is signed to a lucrative record deal. However, as the pieces are falling into place a rumor starts making the rounds that Henry is a racist and an anti-Semite. A benighted press piece about the “Nazi folksinger” brings a gaggle of picketers to his gig at the Espresso Yourself Cafe, and Henry is fired.
This is really a charming film; and I would like to see other work now by Viens. He previously did two documentaries, Island of Roses, The Jews of Rhodes in Los Angeles , which came out of his Sephardic Jewish ancestry, on his mother’s side; andÂ Adio, a short film about his maternal grandmother’s stories. Of Adio, Viens says, “There are just three people in the film: Rebecca, her daughter Mati (my mother) and granddaughter Leah (my cousin). So, Adio is about listening to stories that a grandmother tells. And it’s also about culture, religion and all of those things, butÂ Adio is much too short to be pedagogical or ethnographic. It’s only 19 minutes long, and that’s just about enough time for a grandmother to sit down and tell three stories to a grandchild.”
Again,Â Punching the Clown is a charming film that exhibits a keen eye for cultural detail, fine performances and laughs. I thought it was funnier than A Serious Man, for whatever that’s worth.
As part of the 2009 Sound Unseen Music and Film Festival, Punching the Clown will be shown at 9:45 p.m. Thursday, Oct. 1 at the Trylon Microcinema, 3258 Minnehaha Ave. S. Minneapolis. — Mordecai Specktor