Rick Alverson’s latest feature centers on a stand-up comedian based upon lounge-act persona Neil Hamburger, created by Gregg Turkington in the Nineties. With stringy comb-over, cheap suit, big specs, and an arsenal of obscene, slow-moving one-liners, Neil (played by Turkington) appears to be putting his perplexed audiences on. But what, if anything, lies beneath this purposely grating shell?
Alverson’s widescreen film intersperses Neil’s tour stops at small bars, a private party, and a prison, with the sprawling desert landscapes he visits for tours of airplane graveyards and other sights. The Antonioni-esque anomie of these vistas harbors intimations of mortality and seems to express a void within; in between, Neil continues his squawking, horking, often insulting sets, and phone calls to a possibly imaginary “sweetheart.” Turkington’s frozen mask of disgust and detachment somehow manages to suggest someone just before and just after being punched.
Neil’s routine, in every sense of the word, leads to a gradual breakdown, despite the encouragement of a cousin (John C. Reilly in amiable doofus mode), and the admiration of his young tour partner, a scatological clown (Tye Sheridan). The fragility of Neil’s airtight act might almost symbolize a death knell for a certain kind of early Aughts aggressively ironic appropriation, though a visit with some rowdy bohemians in a compound muddles the picture. Let’s all drink to the death of a hipster?