"I don't mess around with funny"
If you were expecting to laugh at a movie about standup comedians…don't. There are some funny lines and moments, but this is a drama about the underbelly of the standup circuit and the impact this lifestyle has on the comedians, their families, and their friends. Interesting? Yes. Worth your time and money? Maybe not.
Facts of the Case
Steven (Tom Hanks) is a med student struggling to pass his exams. Lila (Sally Field) is a housewife struggling to raise three girls and care for her insurance shilling husband (John Goodman). Both are comedians struggling to follow their artistic passions while trying to make ends meet and not disappoint their respective families. When faced with an ultimatum, how would your heart decide?
Punchline is one of those strange films—it's not what you think it is, but it doesn't apologize for it either. Writer/director David Seltzer must have had an intimate and heart wrenching relationship with the dark side of comedy. You feel it through every moment of this film, from the opening sequence through the closing fade. The pain of trying to keep your creative pursuits a secret, for fear of embarrassment or rejection. The pain of self-doubt, for fear of not being good enough to do what you love. The anger, the indecisiveness, the addiction—a vicious cycle unfulfilled artists find themselves trapped within yet unable to break.
Comedy is just as competitive as other forms of art. While there exists a kinship and sense of family between performers, in the end you are still competing for the same spotlight, the same attention, the same laughs. Steven has been doing standup for quite some time. It is his passion. Even though he has been kicked out of medical school, Steven continues to lie to his family for fear of their reaction and ultimately his own decision on where he wants to take his life. Lila is new to standup but equally as addicted to the high it provides. Lila steals from her family vacation fund to buy jokes and lies to her family about her evenings away from home, for fear of being found out and ultimately standing up for what she wants out of life. In both cases, Steven and Lila continue to maintain one foot in each world without ever fully committing to either—thus, dooming themselves to a life of frustration and self-defeating misery. For you see, fear of success can be just as powerful and controlling as fear of failure. What they each discover, in their own way, is that the only way to break the cycle is to open themselves up and take the risk.
While the film itself plods along in dire need of a vitamin C shot, the performances are quite good. Sally Field never fails to impress with each film and personae she takes on. Lila is suffering at home and on stage—and we are there sharing every minute of it. Tom Hanks, on the other hand, gives us his classic '80s shtick (Bachelor Party, Splash, Volunteers) with a hint of his dramatic potential and success to come. Steven swings from funnyman to tortured soul in the blink of an eye, never finding that emotional safety net. Other interesting albeit brief performances are turned in by John Goodman as Lila's husband, as well as Damon Wayans (TV's My Wife and Kids) and Taylor Negon (Better Off Dead) as themselves in their early standup days.
As for the physical evidence, Columbia TriStar stumbles yet again. Kudos for the near pristine 1.85:1 anamorphic transfer, not counting the dirty opening and closing title sequences—this occurs often on a number of older films. A full screen version is also thrown in for those who prefer it. Guess it makes them feel they're adding something to the disc. Demerits for the Dolby 2.0 audio track and for no extras whatsoever. I don't get it. Here you have two Academy Award winning actors and not the least bit of insight provided into how this picture affected them as actors or any impact it may have had on their careers. Come on Columbia, throw us a friggin' bone here.
Punchline is unique look at a side of comedy we rarely ever see—but at the cost of witnessing Forrest Gump passionately kissing his Momma! Yecch! Rent it for the performances of Hanks and Field, if you are fans. Otherwise, save your money.
This court finds Punchline guilty of being more enlightening than funny. Furthermore, Columbia is being held in contempt as a repeat offender for irresponsibly dumping catalog titles onto DVD. As punishment, studio execs are hereby sentenced to watch 72 straight hours of Tom Hanks' The Money Pit and Sally Field's Beyond the Poseidon Adventure without bathroom breaks. That should teach 'em a lesson. This court now stands in recess.
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