Behind the Smile

Reviewed By Katharine Leis
Posted 03/18/06 12:28:25

"Ugly and brilliant."
5 stars (Awesome)

Whether it be in stand-up, TV shows or blockbuster films, the name Wayans has come to be a synonym for comedy. At first sight then, it seemed that a film written by Damon Wayans and starring Marlon Wayans would be yet another all out blast. However, if one were to go to the theater expecting 90 minutes of giggles from Behind the Smile, they would be severely disappointed.

Instead, what they would see is the story of a young comedian with big dreams who tries to become famous in the big city. Even that plotline sounds cliché though, which this film is most definitely not.

Starting from the beginning, Danny Styles (Marlon Wayans), is a fresh young comic who lives in Cleveland. While at a strip club one night, he meets a stripper, and they have a connection. They date, and seemingly within a few minutes, are married and have a baby. This was the only part of the film that seemed rushed, but given the overall length my guess would be that there was more to it but it was cut down in editing. This also sets up Danny’s goal and timeframe of moving to LA and becoming famous. He goes alone, with full intent to make it big and move his wife and son out there as soon as possible. She gives him three months.

Soon after he arrives, he finds himself at the Laugh Factory with several other struggling comics. Enter celebrity veteran comic, Charlie Richman (Damon Wayans). Charlie is Danny’s hero, and soon becomes his friend. Wealthy, admired, and loved by his fans, Charlie embodies what Danny would one day like to be. At least that’s how it appears on the surface.

Much of the film takes place in the comedy club with manager Vicki Matters, played by Camryn Manheim. Her performance is raunchy, over the top, and on par with Cathy Bates in her role in “Misery.” James Belushi also has a notable role as one of the regular comics, who convincingly shows the angst of struggling to survive both mentally and emotionally in this strange and tiring world.
After the initial shock of realizing that I was not going to laugh and find myself quoting silliness later on, I became entirely immersed in this film. Something happened several times throughout this film that I do not recall ever happening more than once in any other… A scene started to go one way, leading me to believe something bad was going to happen, then diverted slightly, causing a sense of relief, but then something completely unexpected would come out of left field. Also, at times, things were going very well and then all of a sudden, one tiny bit of news sent everything downward in an instant. This was jarring at first, but the more I thought about it afterward, that’s how life really is. One really doesn’t know what is going to happen until after it does. (Sidenote: I would relay which scenes this happens in but I don’t want to ruin them for you, and when you see them, you’ll know exactly what I was talking about).
Both Damon and Marlon live their characters. They prove that their acting abilities extend miles beyond just telling jokes and acting silly. Aside from physically, they are almost unrecognizable from previous comedy roles as compared to their characters in this film.
Corresponding to the title, Behind the Smile is a look at the world that exists when comedians leave the stage. The cruelty, deception, manipulation, as well as the rewards, lures, and appreciation. It is evident that it was written by someone who had seen much of this life firsthand, but still recognized it as shocking. Or maybe it was written out of hearing “you’re so lucky to be a comedian, it must be so much fun” one too many times.
Interspersed throughout the film are bits of Danny Styles’ stand up acts. Lined up end to end, they would probably seem like pieces from several different comedians. They serve to show Styles’ evolution as a performer, as his real life reflects what he gives to the audience.

I was not entertained by this film. I was disturbed, shocked, and saddened. I left the theater feeling as though I had heard a terrible story of a friend of a friend. I learned that those who laugh the loudest quite possibly also cry the loudest. I learned that smiling through adversity is not the easiest, and is sometimes the most difficult thing to do. This is a great film with an important message and I hope audiences will be able to drop their “Wayans” stereotype long enough to see it for the amazing film that it is.

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