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Shtickmen

Reviewed By David Cornelius
Posted 01/10/06 12:58:08

"World, meet Dean Lewis. Funny guy."
3 stars (Just Average)

“Shtickmen” is a movie that has more problems than it should, but it contains some very wonderful performances, and here, that is all that counts. The film is a mockumentary about small-time stand-up comedy that effectively plays as a showcase for Texas-based comic Dean Lewis; his dry wit and deadpan delivery throughout the film keep us glued, even when the movie isn’t entirely working. This would make a perfect demo reel for Lewis to send to L.A. in the hopes of hitting it big.

The idea here is to make a “This Is Spinal Tap” for the comedy world, but it’s an idea that doesn’t quite gel. Most of the opening scenes involve the background of fictional filmmaker Jonothan Krastenberg (Johnny Crass), who decides to follow local comic Jerry Martin (Lewis) around for a while. None of this, it turns out, is necessary; the script quickly dumps Krastenberg as an important character (by the end, I had forgotten he was a major part of the first act) and rolls on just fine without him. It’s obvious that directors Jeff Hays and Eric Jewell (who co-wrote the film with Lewis) wanted to make Krastenberg their own Marty DiBergi, but then, as they realize how comfortable they are with the movie’s loopy assortment of supporting players, opt to imitate Christopher Guest’s later comedies instead.

It’s too bad Hays and Jewell didn’t catch this during production, as the misstep is a bit of a distraction. It also forces the movie to take too long to get where it’s going. But where it’s going is a good place, so I’ll grant the iffy early scenes a pass.

The story follows two tracks: the first is Jerry’s gig teaching a stand-up comedy class to a group of dimwits; the second involves an upcoming comedy tournament, to be judged by a now-famous comedian (David Wilk) who once stole one of Jerry’s routines. While the second track allows the film to actually have a plot (will Jerry win the competition? what will come of his hatred for his rival?), it’s the first track that makes the film. The characters sound clichéd - a creepy embalmer, a moronic construction worker, a bland CPA, a dopey male stripper, a dopier mechanic, a senile fast food cook, and an angry feminist - but they actually work, thanks to a cast that’s effortlessly watchable. The actors seen here make their characters fascinating in their idiocies, so much that even when they’re not doing anything particularly funny (which is more often than the film realizes), we’re still curious to see where things are going. We actually start to want to follow these people’s lives.

The funniest moments of the film come from Lewis, who makes the most out of his character’s endless frustration, and Hays, who co-stars as Jerry’s maniac pal Billy - and who gets the movie’s biggest laughs with his harsh one-liners. But really, the whole cast (made up almost entirely of Dallas-based performers) sell the thing, as they all find a way to make their ridiculous characters work.

Mixed into the film, mostly in the beginning, are interviews with real-life stand-ups, including Brian Regan, Dennis Regan, and Kathleen Madigan. It’s a nice touch, combining the real comics with the fake ones; it helps us settle in with the story and the characters. It also gives us a peek into the world of comedians (albeit not nearly as in depth as in “The Aristocrats” or “Comedian,” but then, it’s not trying to be) that helps set up Jerry’s frustrations. And it’s a nice trick into making this small film feel bigger than it is; it works.

For all its flaws, “Shtickmen” keeps finding ways to rise above them, and the result is an inconsistent but generally involving work, fueled entirely by a team of local performers that make sure we’re always wanting to stick around, just to see a little more.

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