It’s thematically fitting that Henry Phillips’ slight, prickling Punching Henry hits theaters just weeks after The Comedian, a bloated Robert De Niro exercise also about a difficult stand-up comic grinding through bad gigs and insulting meetings with TV suits — and accidentally starring in viral videos. The Comedian was about surviving, about continuing to matter, its hero an ex–sitcom star whose dickishness goads the world into loving him. Punching Henry is about not making it, about not ever having mattered, its hero an every-schlemiel comic/folk-singer whose dickishness is actually more an awkward shyness.
He’s no king of comedy, but he perseveres, plinking out his curiously plaintive, laugh-along songs in armpit nightclubs, wilting when heckled but committed to his art no matter the world’s indifference. Well observed and sometimes hilarious, Punching Henry stands as a better film than The Comedian, but many fewer people will see it. That might be its truest punch line.
It’s also a too-familiar film, one done no favors by its workaday structure. Phillips (who wrote the script with director Gregori Viens, who also directed Phillips in 2010's Punching the Clown) stars as himself, a 40-ish “journeyman” comedian spilling his backstory to a radio host played by Sarah Silverman. Silverman puts all the spin she can on a role that mostly demands she look unusually fascinated by Phillips’ answers to too-general questions. He’s an evasive interview, but the movie shows us what he doesn’t say: that he’s in Los Angeles for a vaguely defined audition before a TV producer (J.K. Simmons); that the audition proves a scarifying disaster; that his car went missing within an hour of his hitting town; that he’s staying with an old friend (Tig Notaro) who, having struck out with adoption, asks him to impregnate her wife.
That’s all standard material for life-of-the-comedian entertainments, but Punching Henry tailors it expertly — no scene is off-the-rack. The comic humiliations compound and surprise, especially Phillips’ escalating difficulties with a taxicab dispatcher. In the film’s many confrontations, Phillips is mostly looking for a way to defuse the tensions, to get everything back to normal, while also trying to determine whether or not he’s being pushed around. When he concludes he has been screwed, he’ll push back, but always at just the wrong moment. Punching Henry hews more closely to life as it’s lived than many comedies bother to, so the results of these dustups aren’t catastrophic — but they’re damned funny.
Despite the title, the film never truly punishes its schlemiel. It also awards him no false victories. Phillips tries to pick up a bartender with whom he shares a quick spark of connection; in any other movie, the hero’s essential decency would interest her, but the creators of Punching Henry know that that’s bullshit. This bartender gets hit on 50 times a night — and Phillips might be the star of the movie but he’s far from the center of its world.
The ensemble is strong, and Notaro in particular scores with her every dry utterance. Phillips’ pained, quiet offstage demeanor is amusing, but he’s too closed off at at least one vital moment. Drunk, he carelessly betrays his best friend and her wife, and the practicalities of it — why, how, whether it was by choice or an accident — prove vague. But he’s stellar in those confrontations, and onstage strikes a curious balance: funny enough to prove compelling yet tender enough to wrack your nerves when everything goes wrong. That’s Punching Henry all over: What other comedian’s movie makes his or her stand-up act look less accomplished that it actually is?