Review by Victoria Large
Posted on 24 June 2011
Source 35mm print
Categories The 2011 Independent Film Festival Boston
Rodman Flender’s documentary Conan O’Brien Can’t Stop was selected as IFFB’s closing night film this year, and it felt like just the right pick. The film chronicles the comedian’s 2010 summer tour, and it captures the manic energy, triumph, and exhaustion intrinsic in the endeavor. It was appropriate, then, that manic energy, triumph, and exhaustion pervaded Brookline’s Coolidge Corner Theatre before the theater’s lights had even dimmed, as the festival’s passionate all-volunteer staff hawked programs, handed out complementary treats from their sponsors, and held a final raffle before providing an intro for Flender and his film. Adding to the sense of occasion was the fact that Brookline happens to be O’Brien’s hometown, and the comic’s parents were in attendance for the screening.
The backstory for Conan O’Brien Can’t Stop will be familiar to fans of O’Brien, who acted as host of the lovably left-of-center Late Night with Conan O’Brien for sixteen years before taking the reins of NBC’s august chat show institution The Tonight Show for a dizzyingly brief stint of less than a year. The messy circumstances of O’Brien’s departure, which saw the host walking away from the show after NBC attempted to push back its timeslot in favor of a new program hosted by O’Brien’s Tonight Show predecessor Jay Leno, made national headlines, generating controversy and an outpouring of support from O’Brien’s fans. The settlement that O’Brien reached in ending his contract with NBC prevented him from appearing on television for several months, prompting him to hatch the national tour seen in the film. Flender tracks O’Brien’s tour from beginning to end, and the mix of behind-the-scenes bits and concert footage will doubtlessly lure in many of the comedian’s devoted fans. (In the interest of full disclosure, I’ll admit that I started following O’Brien’s career during the Late Night days, attended a taping of that show in New York City, and caught the 2010 tour in Connecticut after the Boston date sold out.)
However, to Flender’s credit, Conan O’Brien Can’t Stop should hold appeal beyond O’Brien’s established fanbase. It deals with more than this very specific moment in one particular comedian’s career. It also examines the broader issues and questions contained in that moment. (A moment that, it should be noted, has already passed: O’Brien is back on television hosting Conan for TBS.) It’s an exploration of the thrills and tolls of show biz success that is refreshingly free of melodrama, finding truth in small moments, notably in tense, tired, or lonely backstage segments that throw the roaring crowds and O’Brien’s own flailing limbs into sharper relief. The film’s title is evocative of the burning desire to perform, and beneath that lurks the desire for approval: “I’m like Tinkerbell,” O’Brien memorably quips. “Without applause, I die.” The tour itself simultaneously signals O’Brien’s admirable refusal to admit any kind of defeat and his rather more fraught unwillingness to relinquish the spotlight. O’Brien makes an intriguing documentary subject in part because he has always been a compelling contradiction: as a sharp-witted, Harvard-educated conversationalist prone to pratfalls, goofy dances, and animal noises, he’s like a self-contained comedy duo. He is both the idiot who trips over himself and the sophisticate who makes a withering comment after the fall. That Flender catches him at such a strange moment of flux, one in which he could either be viewed as a high-profile failure (host of a cancelled TV series) or a runaway success (beloved comedian on a well-reviewed and financially successful national tour), renders him both more interesting and more vulnerable.
Flender, a friend of O’Brien’s since their days at the Harvard Lampoon, commended O’Brien’s bravery at allowing him to shoot, and eventually screen, such a revealing and not-always-flattering film. Though part of O’Brien’s shtick, and his appeal, over the years has been his willingness to turn his pointed wit on himself, Flender’s film catches a few moments where O’Brien lobs comic insults at others and may wound more than intended. There is something memorably uncomfortable about the backstage scene in which a tour-weary O’Brien, frustrated by the meet and greet that’s been arranged prior to a show, seems to vent his irritation in a series of joking-but-razor-edged barbs hurled at 30 Rock’s Jack McBrayer. In a similar vein, O’Brien’s interactions with his young assistant, Sona Movsesian, seem to offer the best and worst of the man: he is intensely demanding of her, but their relationship also emerges as one of the sweetest and most complex in the film.
One of the documentary’s greatest virtues is its honesty, and that includes both its depiction of O’Brien and its keen sense of the dual nature of the comedian’s fans, and indeed of fans in general: they are at once lovely and borderline absurd. They present O’Brien with pizzas, cookies, and dolls in his likeness and unfailingly offer him words of appreciation, adoration, and encouragement. One woman asks to pray with him for a moment upon running into him in a parking lot. Displays like this are moving even in their occasional strangeness, and, one senses, they are almost a necessity for a performer of O’Brien’s particular temperament, which is marked as much by insecurity as it is extroversion and ambition.
Throughout, Flender captures the tricky push-and-pull of the life of a performer. O’Brien needs a day off, but instead he squeezes in an extra show. He is exhausted, but he insists on meeting a crowd of fans. He can’t possibly fulfill every request that is made of his talent and time, but it’s deathly important that the requests keep coming. Brief appearances by Jim Carrey, a similarly manic stage and screen presence, and Jack White, an intensely driven musician known for having an excess of irons in the fire, only underscore our sense that the film is about more than its eponymous subject. It’s about success, failure, art, perfectionism, and pain. And it has far more laughs than The Black Swan.
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