Punching Henry

Studio: Well Go USA Entertainment
Directed by Gregori Viens

Feb 23, 2017 Web Exclusive
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It doesn’t seem to matter where he goes; something or someone will always conspire to bring down musical comedian Henry Phillips. The title adroitly sums up the barrage of abuse he faces in this sequel to 2009’s cult hit Punching the Clown, and while the results might have dimmed with familiarity, Phillips and director/co-writer Gregori Viens raise enough laughs in the face of his alter-ego’s continual failure.

After the events of the previous film (it’s not essential to have seen it, though it helps with context), Henry’s career has stalled once again, and he’s back playing nowhere clubs in nowheresville. Until divine intervention in the form of J.K. Simmons’ TV producer brings him back to LA to test for a project about, you guessed it, a useless failure of a stand-up comedian.

There’s an endearing weariness to Phillips’ persona. He’s about as close to a punching bag as a person can get for much of the film. Five minutes into his return to LA and his car has already been stolen. He’ll also end up in a foul-tempered argument with a cab operator, lose his wallet, set fire to his hair, and generally act the butt of countless jokes. One scene, in a rundown hotel, sums him up. Stuck on the floor of a younger and more popular comedian’s room after someone neglected to book him accommodation, he hears a commotion outside and hesitantly calls the front desk to resolve it. His more dynamic roommate simply walks outside and shouts at them to stop. Passivity is Henry’s default, and it’s gotten him nowhere until a company wants to make a show about a passive loser.

In-between these over-the-top scrapes, he plays some of his songs, which are clever and polished, and mixes with old friends. After the success of the previous film, a number of bigger names have come on board including Sarah Silverman, Doug Stanhope and Jim Jefferies, all happy to do whatever is asked of them without upstaging the amusingly maudlin lead.

It’s what’s asked of Henry that sometimes causes problems. In a bid to throw him into the gutter, the mark can be overstepped. A particularly egregious example involves helping friends to conceive. While some of his scrapes feel natural, others, like the pregnancy misadventure, seems frankly ridiculous, culminating in a punchline out of keeping with Henry’s smart and wry musical comedy. He’s a bit too good to be so completely useless, and too useless to ever have gotten that good.

There’s also a not entirely successful attempt to marry a series of picaresque disasters to a broader theme of selling out. Henry will muse on the desire to do right by himself without mortgaging his soul, before promptly falling back into another ridiculous situation. That’s the strain that comes from trying to better its predecessor. The emotional depths have to be deeper, the laughs louder. Punching Henry doesn’t manage either, but it does enough.


Author rating: 6/10

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