Dark comedies are delicate affairs. Not only do they deal with themes that many find unpleasant, gruesome or offensive, filmmakers who attempt them often find themselves staggering in the chasm that is either unimaginative comedy or half-baked tragedy.
When done right, the black comedy is one of cinema’s most worthwhile experiences. Such a film is Middle Man, written and directed by newcomer Ned Crowley, about a comedian that kills in order to be taken seriously as a comic.
Lenny Freeman (Jim O’Heir) is an accountant with a dream trapped in a dull office job. He wants to become a stand-up comedian. The problem is Lenny is not very funny. When his mother dies, leaving him nothing but her ‘53 Oldsmobile, he quits his job and hits the road to chase his dream in Las Vegas and audition for an annual competition, “The Stand-Up Stand-Off”.
Along the way he picks up a sketchy wanderer named “Hitch” (Andrew J. West), who claims to be a talent-manager, but might as well be the Devil. They shake hands and make a “contract”.
A local dive bar in a small town called Lamb Bone has an open-mic comedy night so Lenny’s newly-appointed manager talks his delusional client into trying out his routine before the big trial in Vegas. But Lenny is so humorless that he quickly gets booed off the stage.
A run-in with a heckler leads to murder and a dead body in Lenny’s trunk. Strangely enough, all the blood and turmoil is having a positive side effect on Lenny. It improves his stand-up-act.
Shattered and drenched in blood after the disposal of the dead body, he gives it another shot. This time, he kills it with an awkward report of what happened to the heckler from the night before.
As the body count subsequently piles up, Lenny tries to free himself from his psychotic associate and escape to Vegas with the girl he falls in love with (an adorable Anne Dudek), but Grail, that’s her name, is kept hostage by her misogynistic boyfriend T-Bird (a great Josh McDermitt from The Walking Dead) and Hitch is not easy to ditch.
There is a thin line that separates laughter and pain, humor and hurt. Only a limited number of filmmakers like The Coen Brothers, Edgar Wright and Terry Gilliam have truly mastered the balancing act that is the art of dark comedy.
Middle Man has similar qualities. Its heavy on symbolism and characters are confined by circumstance in worlds that are created in an absurdist’s view. Together with his cinematographer, Dick Buckley, Ned Crowley has crafted not only a wickedly funny, but also an atmospheric, moody debut feature that shows that there is comedy in tragedy and vice versa.
The film was written for actor Jim O’Heir (whom the director has known since 1986 when they took improv classes together) is best known to American audiences from Parks and Recreation. O’Heir does a remarkable job as Lenny, selling the ordinary nice guy, while really embracing an obscure side of his character.
Middle Man is very much a fable that unfolds like a trippy fever dream about the ludicrous obsession with fame and fortune and the lengths to which one will go to get them. Comedian and silent film actor Roscoe Conkling “Fatty” Arbuckle was a major inspiration. He once said “No price is too high to pay for a good laugh”.
And laugh one will.
Middle Man made its World Premiere at the 42nd Seattle International Film Festival.
Edited by Anne Brodie
© FIPRESCI 2016