Judge Erich Asperschlager knows that heckling is bad, but jeckling is worse.
Everyone's a critic.
Heckler is more than a study of the effect drunk loudmouths has on stand up comedians. It's also a chance for filmmakers, musicians, actors, and comics to raise their collective middle finger at every critic who ever told them they sucked.
Facts of the Case
Why do people heckle? How do comics deal with people who do? And what happens when criticism spills off the stage and onto TV, web sites, and newspapers? Jamie Kennedy (Malibu's Most Wanted) finds out.
I have nothing against Jamie Kennedy. I wanted to say that up front, because I just watched Heckler, and don't want there to be any reason for him to pay me a "visit."
It's easy to criticize. No one knows it better than the performers who read all the terrible things people write about them. And, of that group, you could argue that no one knows it better than Kennedy, who uses director Michael Addis's documentary as an opportunity to work through his anger at Son of the Mask's single-digit score on Rotten Tomatoes—and to raise biting questions about performer-audience relations.
Heckler begins, as the title suggests, with comedians (including Lewis Black, Louie Anderson, David Cross, Patton Oswalt, Nick Swardson, Howie Mandel, and Jon Lovitz) bitching about jerks who have yelled at them during their sets—what they hecklers yelled, what they yelled back, their worst heckling experience, and so on.
I think we can all agree that hecklers suck (a word they apparently love). Just like teenagers shouldn't be allowed to bring laser pointers into a movie, hecklers ought to have their lips stitched shut as they pass through the comedy club doors. They annoy the comics. They annoy the rest of the audience. And nothing gets an annoyed audience on a comedian's side faster than watching him use verbal jujitsu on some jackass who's ruining the show for everyone else.
But Heckler's examination of its titular personality type is only a prelude to the documentary's real questions about people who criticize performers: "What gives them the right?" and "What the f&*$'s with the internet?"
Shocking full disclosure: I'm an online critic. Apparently, a lot of performers hate online critics. For mostly good reason. If you've ever been on a message board (and I'm going to assume you have) you know that anonymity plus self-importance equals the worst in human behavior. When that level of dismissive cruelty spills into blog posts and reviews, things can get downright nasty. It's easy to forget that real people with real feelings made the movie you're watching—people who worked hard and bragged to their mothers about how excited they were about making it. It's also easy (and fun) to boil that effort down to a snarky aside.
Jamie Kennedy gets the chance to confront several of his worst critics with text from their reviews—an uncomfortable exercise eclipsed only by the vitriolic review snippets he reads to a shell-shocked Carrot Top before asking him how they make him feel. I've never felt bad for Carrot Top before. Now I do. Thanks, Heckler.
Heckler is nearly critic-proof—not because it's a flawless documentary, but because it makes you feel bad about criticizing it. It's like a PSA about emotionally crippled comics, with story after story about the ways flippant criticism haunts even the most experienced performer. It sways you to its way of thinking. People are jerks, and critics can be cruel. I mean, how would you feel if someone wrote something awful about you? It would be a fair question if it wasn't so leading.
Heckler tries to be balanced in its attack, but spends more time blasting basement-dwelling bloggers than it does recognizing thoughtful critics for their contribution to arts and letters. It provides performers—Jamie Kennedy, chief among them—an outlet to lash out. And you know what? That's OK. Hecklers isn't trying to be a graduate-level thesis about the role of criticism in shaping popular culture. Sure, it takes a decent stab at asking the who's and why's of it all, but in the end, this is a movie about a bunch of rightfully pissed off comics who finally have the chance to go off on the critics who called their last project "the worst movie in the history of film." Who wouldn't want to do that? It's funny, crude, thought-provoking, and it includes Carrie Fisher repeatedly using the f-word—and this critic isn't asking it to be anything more.
At 78 minutes, Hecklers is just the right length for the story it wants to tell, but for those who want a little more bang for your buck, the DVD sports a decent slate of extras, including a few more interviews, nearly 30 minutes of deleted scenes, a Kennedy-Addis audio commentary, and an extended sequence about the internet-infamous boxing match between German director Uwe Boll and those film critics dumb enough to accept the invitation to let the amateur fighter beat the crap out of them.
The movie is culled together from film and video sources of varying quality—mostly talking head interviews, archival footage, and onstage performance—with 2.0 audio that gets the job done. Surround might have been nice for the comedy club sequences, but this was never going to be an A/V reference title.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Okay, I'll risk a midnight Kennedy visit: Although Heckler does a great job of being what it is, the thoughtful questions it asks are at times undermined by a few of its subjects, who come off as whiny. Why are comedians who make their living poking fun at people, pushing various envelopes, and being offensive, themselves offended when someone else pokes fun at them? Is it really, as Gilbert Gottfried suggests during the closing credits, an attack on "free speech" when someone tells him they didn't like his act? Do people really have to be comedians or filmmakers to have an opinion about comedy or film? Are comedians' egos so fragile? Is the only thing sacred in comedy the comedian? No one deserves to be verbally abused, but some of the lines drawn between heckling and film criticism are tenuous at best. Of course, I would say that, wouldn't I?
Jamie Kennedy might be the face of Heckler, but what makes this documentary worth watching is the collective clout of some of the world's best comedians, musicians, and filmmakers wrestling with what it means to be famous in a time when everyone's a self-appointed critic.
Is it perfect? No. But if you take the occasional hypocrisy (and biting of the critical hands necessary to make this DVD a success) with a grain of salt, there's no reason to heckle this performance.
You (don't) suck!
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Echo Bridge Home Entertainment
• Commentary Featuring Director Michael Addis & Jamie Kennedy
Review content copyright © 2008 Erich Asperschlager; Site design and review layout copyright © 2013 Verdict Partners LLC. All rights reserved.