52nd Chicago Independent Film Festival U.S. Indies entry and presentation
"MIDDLE MAN"-- 4 STARS
“Middle Man,” the directorial debut of Chicago-based filmmaker Ned Crowley, opens with a choice quote from classic comedian Fatty Arbuckle that simply reads “no price is too high for a good laugh.” If you don’t know who Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle was, then you’re already missing the joke. Crowley and his ensemble take Arbuckle’s pithy maxim, put it on a rusty and seedy roller coaster, and challenge you to live through the ride. Combining old school swagger with modern twists and turns, “Middle Man” is a dark comedy gem that made its local premiere at the 52nd Chicago International Film Festival.
The film follows the impossibly sunny Lenny Freeman, played by former “Parks and Recreation” supporting player Jim O’Heir. He is a middle-aged accountant in Peoria, Illinois who has always lived with his recently deceased mother, an enabler and fellow dreamer that raised little Lenny on the classic comedy routines of Jack Benny, George Burns, and the Marx brothers among others. One day, Lenny sets his mind to quitting his job and seeking his unfulfilled dream of being a stand-up comedian in her honor. He packs his uniform simple suits and his memorized comedy cassettes into a bequeathed 1953 Oldsmobile and sets out cross-country to the audition stages that await him in Las Vegas.
Clueless from the real ways and threats of the world, Lenny picks up a questionable hitchhiker in the rain conveniently named “Hitch” (Andrew J. West of “The Walking Dead”). Lenny trades stories with the tricky and garrulous stranger, and Hitch notices what we all can see coming. Lenny, try as he may with recycled classic bits, is not very funny. He finds Lenny’s unkempt tone endearing, not getting that it’s his naive honesty. Seeing either an easy mark or a sad sack he can help, Hitch veers Lenny off the main road to the dusty (and fictional) pit-stain town of Lamb Bone, Nevada, complete with the Yuck Stop, a roadhouse comedy club perfect for practice.
Twisting in the tumbleweeds and empty beer bottles of this dead-end town include the hard-working and lovely waitress named Grail (fellow TV vet Anne Dudek), the gonzo ventriloquist priest Father Ricky (throwback character actor Tracey Walters), the resident top dog comedian and all-round bully T-Bird (Josh McDermitt), and the dim-witted, movie-quoting local lawman Officer Flick (Chad Donella). When the spotlight turns on and the eager audience clapping dies down, Lenny has his turn.
He gets on stage, steps to the mic, and either brings the house down or crashes and burns (you’ll see). One way or another, the criticism that follows and Lenny’s reaction to it set off a tumultuous chain of events that rattle our man to his core. Judging by the accompanying picture to this review of a bloodied man with a gun and a pair of five-and-dime story comedy disguise glasses, you might sniff the kind of deep shit Lenny gets himself into. Your guesses will only be the tip of the iceberg and you will each be assigned a rug underneath you for future pulling.
“Middle Man” blends an acidic edge with showy panache that bleeds from every character, large and small. Credit the devious fun of Crowley for the snappy dialogue that pops from each character. The comedy is clever instead of coarse while maintaining its darkness. Nearly every speaking part of this colorful cast of funhouse mirrors nails a zinger or two that fits right into that line of taste. Andrew J. West may do most of the catchy chattering, but it’s Jim O’Heir’s unraveling straight man that bolsters the entire parade of predicaments that await. It’s a dynamite part for him.
Micro-budget be damned, “Middle Man” dares to take more chances than Hollywood’s idea these days of a dark comedy and succeeds. This is the more genuine article of the genre. Slot this as a guilty pleasure right there with a cult fave like Peter Berg’s “Very Bad Things.” Fueled by ever-present Louis Prima tracks, Crowley’s film and its winning charm swing from whimsy to ballsy at the drop of a hat or pull of a trigger. To circle it all back, “Middle Man” is a rambunctious good time and a spiked pie-in-the-face that would make Arbuckle proud.
LESSON #1: WHAT ONE WILL DO FOR THE CHANCE AT FAME-- The foundation for much of the warped happenings of “Middle Man” is the well-worn question of what someone is willing to do to be famous. Lenny is a true dreamer who gets his buttons pushed and then his limits tested and exceeded multiple times over. The question of what one will do for fame is almost always followed by the reflective question of whether it was all worth it.
LESSON #2: THE MALICIOUSNESS OF STAND-UP COMEDY-- Getting up there and entertaining the mob isn’t as easy as the likes of everyone from George Burns to George Carlin made it look. Nowadays, shock value is what “kills” over a well-written gag. Be ready to be despised as much, if not more so, than being celebrated and prepare to fail more than you succeed. The irony is that going after these laughs is not for the faint of heart.
LESSON #3: EVERYBODY’S A COMEDIAN-- Take away the center stage of Lesson #2 and the high aspirations of Lesson #1 and you’re left this Douglas Adams quote for Lesson #3. Part his affirmation reads: “We laugh at everything. Not intelligently anymore, not with sudden shock, astonishment, or revelation, just relentlessly and meaninglessly.” “Middle Man” challenges that literally with its storyline and figuratively with its excellent cast of jokesters playing jokesters.