Movie Review: Phillips remains comic also-ran in “Punching Henry”

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The working title of “Punching Henry” was “Still Punching the Clown.” Because we’ve been down this bemused, bittersweet road with Henry Phillips before.

“Punching the Clown” (2010) was a semi-autobiographical riff on stand-up comedy’s “singer, songwriter, troubadour extraordinaire” Henry Phillips, an acquired taste who is grinding it out on the road, performing breathless ditties about wanting “a dog-type girl” and the like, finding laughs but getting in his own way when it comes to his “big break.”

“Punching Henry” is more of the same. He’s got the same inept manager (Ellen Ratner). He’s still living gig to gig, driving to each “Funny Bone” or “Laugh Factory” in a 2006 Suzuki, clinging to show business as fame eludes him.

In “Clown,” a record deal was dangled in front of him. Now, years later, viral video and Henry’s posed haplessness are catnip to a producer (J.K. Simmons) who is sure he can be “the loser who could make a loser feel like a hero” on TV.

Otherwise, “Clown” and “Henry” are the same movie. But if an artist is someone who “pounds the same nail over and over again,” give it up for Phillips.

Not everybody digs his satirical riffs on politics, tunes about getting over mistakes, from “losing a Malaysian airliner” to “crashing a cruise ship” to blundered love affairs with a simple, “Just say ‘Oops, and move on.” And many people — too many — never will.

Henry is summoned to LA for a meeting, where his car is promptly stolen,. Every Angelino he meets finds this hilarious. He is abused by hotel clerks, hecklers (Clifford Collins Jr.) and a taxi dispatcher. Life is a million little indignities, and Henry suffers and suffers for our sins.

Phillips is a soft-spoken Robert Palmer/Steve Lawrence look-alike with an act that leans on deadpan. That makes him a natural at delivering Henry-styled haplessness. He meets a woman in a party. She’s avoiding meat.

“Oh, are you a lesbian? I mean, vegetarian? Sorry.”

Simmons, playing the producer pitching the show to a viral-happy hipster-run TV network, gets to articulate the Phillips persona.

“He’s a road-weary Sisyphus, rolling the rock up the comedy hill…He’s Charlie Brown.”

henry3Yeah. That’s funny. That could sell.

A thread that ties the picture together is a long podcast interview with Sarah Silverman in which he rambles on about life in dingy hotels and thankless rural clubs after 40. It’s not that revealing, but as in “Clown,” Phillips sees the nobility in “failing, doing what I love.”

Comic Jim Jefferies and other funny folk have cameos, but mainly this is just Phillips, doing his act, showing real talent at the guitar and great timing as a wit.
But truthfully, if you saw “Punching the Clown” there’s no real need to see the sequel. Lots of Comedy Central bits in the intervening years aside, he’s still Henry and we, his not-quite-won-over-fans, are still “Punching Henry.”

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MPAA Rating: unrated, pot-use,  sexual situations, profanity

Cast: Henry Phillips, Ellen Ratner, Sarah Silverman, Jim Jeffries, J.K. Simmons

Credits:Directed by Gregori Viens, script by Henry Phillips and Gregori Viens. A Well Go USA release.

Running time: 1:35

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