Dying is easy, comedy is hard. That isn’t just the tag line for Shtickmen, it also seems to be the motto and purpose statement. It’s a clever group of guys coming together with a very simple idea and trying hard to stretch too little material into a feature length film.
The storyline circulates around a director making a documentary about stand up comedy. The subject of the film is Jerry Martin, the Charlie Brown of the Dallas improv comedy crowd. He’s a nice guy who tries really hard but just can’t seem to catch a break. In between efforts to make it big Jerry teaches a community class on stand-up that seems to attract the most comically challenged people in town. A local competition sponsored by the Laff Channel is Jerry’s best chance at getting the recognition he deserves. Just his luck, one of the judges is an old colleague, “Buckeye” Jim, a guy who made it to the big time in part by stealing Jerry’s material.
In the same vein as Christopher Guest’s Best of Show and A Mighty Wind, the movie feels like a lightly scripted story relying heavily on the actors improvising their way through the scenes. The technique works well for the kinds of exceptionally talented groups of people that Guest pulls together for his movies, but most of Shtickmen’s cast just isn’t up to the challenge. I don’t want to sound unappreciative. After all, these are mostly amateur folks doing their best at something they enjoy. Still, like the characters they play, they just don’t have what it takes to keep up the act for the entire movie.
Some of the blame has to go to the directors and writers who have carved out too few interesting setups and too many basic roles. Most of the characters are simplistic or quick cameos, leaving Jerry to almost single handedly carry the show. Fortunately Dean Lewis, the man playing Jerry, is a laughter powerhouse and does a stellar job given the massive weight he bears in keeping the storyline afloat. Co-director and writer Jeff Hays does triple duty starring as Billy Benton, Jerry’s best friend. As the sidekick Hays’ gets to be the brutally honest one towards the floundering class of improv students, sending out all those harsh one liners I kept hoping someone would say.
The moment to moment humor is undeniable but it lacks the variety to keep things interesting for a full hour and a half. The final thirty minutes are particularly slow and sometimes grueling to watch. By that point the character shticks are old and the wrap up fizzles out. As if sensing the desperation of his movie’s finale, Jeff Hays (a man of size, shall we say) decides to go for broke by appearing topless in Billy’s final interview. Sorry Jeff, but that’s way more that most of us care to see. The movie is unrated, labeling itself as intended for mature audiences. Ironically, a more appropriate suggestion would be intended for immature audiences as most of the questionable content relates mostly to pedophilia and bestiality and doesn’t add much to the movie’s comedy.
Shtickmen’s highly amusing material seems better suited for a mini-series about Jerry and Billy’s adventures in irony amongst Dallas’ improv community. There’s some definite comedic chemistry between the two and if they’ve got the guts (well, Jeff, we know you do don’t we) to stick it out they’re likely to produce some really great movies. In the meantime, this movie is proof of potential but a far cry from a great flick.