The world of stand-up comedy is explored with a dark and angry intensity in 'Punchline,' an offbeat movie written and directed by David Seltzer and starring Tom Hanks and Sally Field.
And though 'Punchline' defies the Hollywood penchant for producing either pure comedy or straight drama, its view of those with the guts to stand before an audience and dare them to laugh is oddly uplifting.
'Punchline' ostensibly involves the story of Lilah Krystick, played by Field, who decides to chase her lifelong dream to be a comedian while trying to play her role as dutiful suburban New Jersey wife and mother. Field is forever plucky as the determined Lilah, and Lilah's transformation both personally and professionally is upbeat and heartening.
But the movie's real power is in the somewhat darker and less-kind portrait of young comic Steven Gold, a medical student who hates the sight of blood, and would rather lose the respect of his family than give up the only thing he's ever really loved -- comedy.
Gold, played by Hanks, is a complicated, driven, wildly funny and just plain wild genius who seems to delight in failure in his pursuit of success. You know he's destined to make it big, if he can hold his soul together long enough.
'Punchline' brings these two characters together, and their individual strengths seem to bolster the other's weaknesses. It's an often sweet pairing that comes closer to real-life companionship than most film depictions of friendships between men and women.
If anything, however, Field seems to be trying too hard to be the dowdy housewife bent on becoming a comic; she seems out-of-touch when she is meant to be isolated in her world of hearth and home.
Hanks, on the other hand, is pure angry energy and unbridled talent as the manipulative, lonely Gold. His performance gleams with the best of the movie's comedy and drama.
John Goodman, as John Krystick, puts in a winning performance as the bewildered and resentful husband who watches his wife compulsively driven to her new life as a comic. His character development in the film is thankfully lacking in a lot of cliches about boorish husbands; his role is understated and adds a remarkable sweetness.
It is comedians, however, who make up the bulk of the cast of 'Punchline' although they don't all play the stand-up roles. Their influence is considerable in making 'Punchline' so realistic and smart. Dottie Archibald, Susie Essman, Barry Sobel and Randy Fechter made contributions as comedy consultants and coaches to Field and Hanks as well as playing supporting roles. Director Mark Rydell portrays a comedy club manager with smarmy elegance, and another director, Paul Mazursky, plays a hustler who sells bad jokes to Lilah.
'Punchline' looks at the unfunny side of the world of comedy, and presents a fresh look at why the clown often is hiding a heart full of tears.
This movie is rated R. Contains strong language.