Comedy Is Not Pretty


Written and directed by David Seltzer

At the USA Cheri

"THE most important thing in life is being able to laugh at yourself." If you've ever doubted the truth of this old saw, David Seltzer's new film, Punchline, may dispel your disbelief.

Nothing is really purely funny in this movie about two would-be comedians struggling for recognition in a Manhattan night club. Even their jokes provoke more thought than laughter. Steven (Tom Hanks) is a medical school dropout whose comic routines are pointed reminiscences of his own failures as a student. Lilah (Sally Field), a New Jersey housewife with a yen for humor, fails miserably at first at the business of being funny. She resorts to time-worn Polish jokes--you know the type: "My husband's Polish. He gave me something long and hard when we got married...a last name." Understandably, these earn more catcalls than applause, and for advice she turns to Steven, whose wry wit sends the audience into convulsions.

"Nothing is a joke to me. That's why I do stand-up comedy and you don't," Steven tells Lilah. And this paradoxical statement is the crux of the movie. Steven coaches Lilah in the subtleties of being funny--convincing her that if she's late getting home, it's funny...because the babysitter's name is Charley Manson.

But there is a line between humor and reality. Steven and Lilah approach that line from different sides, and as each comes closer to seeing it from the other's perspective, the bond between them grows. Steven has not told his father, a well-known doctor, that he has dropped out of med school. For weeks, this deception provides fodder for his nightly routines at the Gas Station, the comedy club where he is struggling to get his start. But the line is crossed when his father sees him at the club on a night when he'd hoped to be "discovered" by a talent scout. He breaks down, unable to continue. Confronted from a personal perspective, his life ceases to be funny.

Lilah at first sees her personal life as sacred and devoid of humor. But her earliest real success comes when Steven drags her into a spontaneous appearance at a club. Forced to go on without her prepared Polish jokes, she reaches into her own experiences and gets some real laughs. (Gazing dubiously at the gifts circulating at a bachelorette party in the audience, she quips, "I don't want to do anything intimate with anything that's got a 90-day warranty.") Later, at the Gas Station, her cracks about her own family and sex life bring down the house.

As Field's comedic coach, Hanks is an appealing if sometimes irritating character--but above all, he's funny. His terse, mocking humor overshadows Field, who despite her comic efforts, remains a housewife who tries hard.

THE film isn't merely a showcase for Hanks and Field. The minor characters are vital to the plot and theme; the lineup of stand-up comics at the Gas Station is odd and intriguing. One man dresses as a nun every night; another, an overweight high school history teacher, endures hissing disdain from the audience--all for the sake of his family, his students and comedy. Romeo (Mark Rydell), the self-concerned club manager, tries to prod and cajole his comics to the top. These characters are left behind as Steven and Lilah rise closer to success, and we feel their disappointment and their dogged perseverance.

When we see Lilah's family life, we understand why she runs away to the club every night. One particularly awful morning, Lilah battles the tangles in one daughter's hair while making French toast, trying to locate lost socks and arguing with her husband, John (John Goodman). Goodman gives a solid but dislikable performance as he grills his wife about her nocturnal whereabouts and lambastes her for being late to prepare dinner.

There are some implausible moments. Steven's unrequited love for Lilah seems juvenile in contrast to the pedantic approach he takes when teaching her how to be funny. The maternal role she assumes seems much more believable. When Lilah makes a long speech to her family about her proclivity for comedy, her stab at poignancy seems forced: "I love being a mom. I love being a wife, and I love being able to make people laugh...It makes you feel special." The movie succeeds in communicating its theme however indirectly, when the characters reveal their thoughts on stage, and not when they proclaim their feelings in an attempt at emotional intensity.

Lilah herself undergoes a series of apparently miraculous transitions in this movie--from housewife to would-be comic, to love-object, to successful comedian. The film's happy ending fails to answer the question of whether she's really found her true self, or if screenwriter Seltzer is just bowing to convention.

What's the punchline, you ask? In Steven's words, "All of our lives are funny. We're God's animated cartoons." Humor can be an escape valve. But it can also be a way of expression, and for both Steven and Lilah, it becomes a means of sublimating the unhappy truths of their lives.