Stars: Carl Barron, Leanna Walsman, Damien Garvey, Roy Billing, Simon Westaway and Richard Green.
Writers: Carl Barron and Anthony Mir.
Director: Anthony Mir.
Not the giddy rom-com romp its marketing would have you believe, Anthony Mir’s Manny Lewis is a rather more darkly-hued look inside the fractured heart and self-obsessed mind of that unique breed, the stand-up comedian. Baring his psychological all in the service of the script he co-wrote with his director is Carl Barron, stepping into the leading man role with a pleasing, if occasionally too understated dramatic ease.
Barron upped his profile from pub comic to stadium filler via appearances in the mid 1990’s on the blokish television hit, The Footy Show, and has carved a profitable, much-loved niche for himself in the Aussie showbiz landscape. His off-centre observations often involved his formative years as a misunderstood young man and later-in-life failings as a romancer; in that regard, Manny Lewis is Carl Barron, albeit a version of the man gripped by a stark loneliness and hollow-eyed depression that will take many of his followers by surprise.
So mopey is his persona, it is hard to gauge why Manny is popular at all (other than the passers-by yelling, “Hey, love you Manny!”). He has amassed considerable fame out of exploiting childhood memories, most notably ripping apart the parenting skills of his father (Roy Billing, too warm a screen presence for this role), yet is suffering through an existential crisis that is putting all he worked for at risk. The comedian is on the verge of signing a massive US deal and has a live primetime concert set to air, but baulks at any interaction with his fans and phones sex-worker hotlines when gripped by insomnia.
It is via one such anonymous hook-up that he connects with ‘Carolyn’ (Leanna Walsman), a voice with whom he can share his (many) woes. When ‘Carolyn’s real-life alter ego, Maria, stumbles across a) her phone-john’s true identity, and b) the man himself at the local café, a bumpy romance blossoms. These scenes should play with a lightness of touch that skims over the less plausible beats of the narrative, yet much of the first act plods. It is to Walsman’s credit that the tropes play with any conviction at all; her dramatic acting chops are the film’s key asset and explain away the absence of a ‘comedienne’ as the female lead (achieving a similar balance to that Paul Thomas Anderson created by casting Emily Watson opposite Adam Sandler in Punch Drunk Love, though all comparisons end there).
Barron and Mir (directing his first feature since 2003’s You Can’t Stop the Murders) never seem entirely invested in the romantic machinations of their story. They are far more concerned with the psychological framework of those that seek a career plying the stand-up craft. Yet the revelation that most comics are desperately yearning for the approval of their parents and are so self-absorbed as to not see the goodness of the world before them is not exactly groundbreaking. Fans will recognise that Barron is also retiring some old material; a bit he’s been doing for most of the last decade, the “this is going to hurt me more than it hurts you” routine, is central to a third-act meltdown that all but ensures it won’t be dragged out for any Leagues Club encores in the future.
The ‘sad clown’ genre is filled with far more skilfully realised examples (Judd Apatow’s Funny People; Billy Crystal’s Mr Saturday Night; David Seltzer’s Punchline; Chris Rock’s Top Five), none of which take the sombre, maudlin route employed here. Unlike the bigscreen transition of such popular local comics as Paul Hogan (Crocodile Dundee), Jimeon (The Craic) and Mick Molloy (Crackerjack), Carl Barron’s brand of moody introspection and manufactured romance is unlikely to connect with old fans or win over many new ones.