‘The Opening Act’ is No Headliner

by Warren Cantrell on October 15, 2020

in Print Reviews,Reviews

[Rating: Minor Rock Fist Down]

(In Theaters, Digital and On Demand October 16, 2020)

Stand-up comedy is friggin’ hard, sure, yet it pales in comparison to the difficulty involved in making a good movie about it. When a comedian is on stage and clicking with an audience it seems so effortless, yet this casual exterior betrays a reality filled with countless hours of solitary writing, trial balloon sets, and nearly imperceptible tweaks over dozens of performances that refine a bit or joke until it’s where it needs to be. This is hardly a cinematic process, however, and as The Opening Act reaffirms, trying to translate that into something worth watching is indeed difficult.

The movie sets itself up well enough, positioning its lead, Will (Jimmy O. Yang), as an earnest, comedy-steeped kid whose parents encouraged his stand-up from a young age. Will’s comedic aspirations have hit a dead-end in adulthood, however, with the guy struggling to get just a handful of minutes onstage at a local bar’s open mic night. Although he is buoyed by a gorgeous, supportive, successful girlfriend (Debby Ryan), his day job and boss from hell (Bill Burr) keep Will from committing fully to his stand-up dreams.

Struggling to get the stage time and exposure needed to book bigger and better gigs, Will is about ready to give up when he’s thrown a lifeline by a fellow comic, Quinn (Ken Jeong), who can’t M.C. an upcoming gig due to a scheduling conflict. Quinn recommends Will for the job, which is an opener for the opener of a past-his-prime comedy icon that Will grew up on, Billy G (Cedric the Entertainer). Miles away from the small-time bar stage he’s accustomed to (literally and figuratively), Will has to learn to live in comedy’s fast lane or get run over by the folks zooming around him.

As first acts go, the one featured in The Opening Act is a decent one, as it sets up its characters and the central conflict of the story with both clarity and efficiency. This is where the good times end, unfortunately, as this is a film about funny people doing funny shit with desperately few laughs and stakes that never elevate the material or the audience’s investment in it.

The comedians featured are all very funny people in real life, yet they are constrained here by a rigid character “bit” that is one-note and about 20 years past funny. Whether it’s Will’s gig roommate, Chris (Alex Moffat), who has slept with so many women that he can’t keep track anymore, or the creepy club owner, Chip (Neal Brennan), who the script throws into the mix in an attempt to make sexual harassment funny again, the humor all falls flat. At one point, Will and Chris talk about their generation as the new wave of comedy, ready to usurp Billy G and the old guard, yet most of the jokes in this movie play like extended gags from 90s sitcoms (the sex romp hide and seek scene a prime example of this).

It’s more than just a script issue, though. Will is a decent comic from the get-go, yet the arc of the film needs him to struggle so that his eventual come-up is earned. Watching a person bomb a set or hack their way through a shock jock radio interview is no fun, even if it is necessary for the narrative, so this portion makes for some rough sledding. Director Steve Byrne also wrote the script for The Opening Act, and while he should be commended for shining a light on the struggles of stand-up, there’s not enough good material orbiting these cringy moments to make the slog worth it.

As far as narrative thrust, The Opening Act finds itself wanting as well. Although Will has quit his job to work Quinn’s gig, there is never any real worry about what might happen if he fails since he’s got the perfect supportive girlfriend waiting in the wings. A very real and understandable Catch-22 about needing experience to book new gigs, but not being able to get that experience without new gigs and known comics vouching for him also goes out the window by the close of the first act once Will secures Quinn’s M.C. spot. Will is a good guy worth rooting for, yet a lack of stakes for him and his journey make any investment in all this a stretch.

Byrne coaxes decent performances out of all the primaries, with Cedric the Entertainer a notable standout (his character is one of the few written with depth). Yang also does well going somewhat against type as the hopelessly nice lead, and carries the material as well as one could hope for, yet again, the script isn’t exactly breaking the bank for him on the funny. At a crisp 90 minutes, The Opening Act moves well and never finds itself bogged down all that much, which makes the moments straining for chuckles that much less offensive for not wearing out their welcome.

Still, it’s not great. Will’s narrative arc is shallow and framed with vignettes that aren’t especially humorous, which is just as devastating as it sounds considering this is a film about stand-up comedy. If the movie were going a darker route and exploring the whole sad clown phenomenon, that might be one thing, but this one is actively trying to be funny, and like so many opening acts out there, it needs a lot more work to get there.

“Obvious Child” is the debut novel of Warren Cantrell, a film and music critic based out of Seattle, Washington. Mr. Cantrell has covered the Sundance and Seattle International Film Festivals, and provides regular dispatches for Scene-Stealers and The Playlist. Warren holds a B.A. and M.A. in History, and his hobbies include bourbon drinking, novel writing, and full-contact kickboxing.

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