Believe it or not, this micro-budget, semi-autobiographical comedy about the life of singer-comedian Henry Phillips is actually a sequel to his 2009 collaboration with director Gregori Viens, Punching the Clown, which documented Phillips’ move to Los Angeles after a grueling career of traveling through America’s heartland. That film ended with Phillips being hilariously run out of town after a misunderstanding led a tabloid to label him a neo-Nazi. His new film, Punching Henry (originally titled And Punching the Clown), picks up Henry’s story several years later, with him having spent his time since L.A. back on the road playing dive bars, coffee houses, and the occasional casino comedy club.
Thanks to some wheeling and dealing by Henry’s usually inept manager Ellen (Ellen Ratner, returning from the first film), she has gotten his bizarre story in front of big Hollywood producer/director Jay Warren (J.K. Simmons), who wants to turn his downtrodden life into a television series, which would mean Henry would have to return to L.A. Thankfully, one of his oldest musician friends, Jillian (Tig Notaro) has a couch for him to crash on and a wife (Notaro’s real-life wife, Stephanie Allynne) who doesn’t mind the company.
The film alternates between meetings with ridiculous TV executives, who care more about viral video views and social media “likes” than the quality of a show’s content, and a series of mostly disastrous gigs in which Henry is either heckled (something he doesn’t handle well or at all) or just not especially good. His singing and playing are certainly above average, but I didn’t find a lot of what’s on display here to be that funny.
And while Phillips seems to know more famous people who he can get to cameo in his movie, he’s effectively sandwiched them into a story that they have no business being in. Mike Judge shows up as a incompetent tech guy at a comedy gig; the great Jim Jefferies is on hand as one of Henry’s best comedy palls; and Sarah Silverman is featured throughout the film as a podcast host interviewing Henry about his life story (a convenient way to narrate and comment on the film without actually having a narration).
So much of Punching Henry reminded me of the far better, Mike Birbiglia-directed look at the world of stand-up, Sleepwalk With Me, which oddly enough could have easily been influenced by Punching the Clown. The biggest issues with this film are Phillips himself, who isn’t much of an actor or personality when he’s off stage. He has a great number of funny, inappropriate songs and a handful of funny lines, but little of it adds up to make a complete person that an audience truly cares about. Even in the clearly staged moments when the club audience is laughing at his material, it feels fake and goes against the goal of making us empathize with Phillips.
Punching Henry just sits there on the screen, supplying us with a few familiar faces of people most of us like and a few more characters who grate our nerves and don’t give us any real sense of who they are. It’s too bad too, because it’s easy to imagine a far funnier and more awkward movie about a gimmick comic. Phillips’ songs are mostly amusing, but neither they nor he are the slam dunks we need to recommend this poorly assembled backstage peek.