No Sleep 'til Madison

Reviewed By Chris Parry
Posted 04/01/04 05:52:36

"A fun little comedy about boys being boys. With other boys. And hockey."
3 stars (Just Average)

Whenever I seem to see a tiny independent comedy production that never gets a release but makes you laugh anyway, it seems Jim Gaffigan is somewhere close by. The best stand-up comedian that is destined never to get his own comedy special on HBO had me on the floor with a small part in last year's Hacks, but in No Sleep 'Til Madison he steps up to the lead role. Playing a slightly deranged Wisconsin boy desperately reliving the glory days of his high school hockey youth, much to the inconvenience of his buddies who have to follow him around on yearly reunion trips, Gaffigan is the heart and soul of a production that has both in abundance. Sure, it's not polished, and yeah, some of it falls flat, but if stars were won for effort, talent and prospects for the future, everyone here would be reveling in the five's.

It's that time of year again; Wisconsin high school hockey finals time. Which means nothing to anyone who doesn't have a kid, a cousin or a friend's kid playing in a game... unless you're Owen Fenby (Gaffigan), high school hockey fan.

Owen's buddies have suffered for a long time. Ever since high school ended, he's dragged them across the state on yearly trips to watch the quarter finals, semi finals and final. Owen keeps the stats and has the T-shirts printed (and drives, and arranges pick-up games, and prepares itineraries), while the others, Greg, Tommy and Vern (TJ Jagodowski, Michal Gilio and Jed Resnik respectively) drink, hang out, and put up with Owen's many dysfunctions.

At least, that's how the traditional roles work, but this year things are getting more complex as real life begins to encroach on Owen's fantasy world. Greg's wife is fairly obsessed about their new baby, while Tommy is being hassled by his boss, and Vern's gout is really making life hard for his right big toe. Along to document all this is Owen's young friend and understudy, Dave (Ian Brennan), a kid who seems to have even less idea about life than the man he looks up to.

No Sleep 'Til Madison is very funny - at least as funny as most comedy films out in theaters right now. Of course, that's no great challenge when Hollywood's idea of funny is to have an animated dog fart at the audience, but even if there had been a truly great comedy on our screens in the last two years, No Sleep 'Til Madison would rank pretty highly.

And that all comes from Jim Gaffigan. See, anyone can do 'funny'. To prove that, Jagadowsky, Gilio and Resnik do it just fine, in roles that only have spartan humor to them. But doing funny while also getting an audience to build a healthy contempt for you, while also conning them into feeling sorry for you - that's hard, and that's exactly what Gaffigan manages to pull off here. His character, Owen, is for the most part a contemptible little swine, but he's also just hopeless enough to have you giving a damn about his well being. When he throws a Slushie, you know that Slushie has been thrown, baby, but you forgive the guy for being dick enough to throw it in the first place.

See, Owen's uncool. Always has been, always will be, and this is his only real place to shine - high school hockey. How can you hate a guy that feels so out of place in the world? You can come close. You can really want to hate him. But Gaffigan keeps it together, keeps the laughs coming often, and somehow turns this guy into the kind of love/hate dilemma that made Basil Fawlty such a comedy icon.

Sadly, it's all for naught, as No Sleep 'Til Madison never got the screens it deserved. Other than a film fest here and there, it was largely ignored. Maybe the film just didn't look big enough. Maybe the names weren't big enough. Maybe the subject of Wisconsin high school hockey doesn't play in Peoria... Or maybe it takes more than talent, knowledge, drive and good performances to make it big in the world of comedic filmmaking - it also takes a lot of luck.

As a mockumentary, it mostly works. Like all low budget comedies, sometimes it runs a little long between the good laughs, and sometimes the performances of the smaller roles leave a little to be desired (hey, when you can't afford to pay your actors, you take what you can get), but if you have a few hours to kill, you'll be far from disappointed if you choose to gamble a dollar or two on Madison.

I'd give credit to the director of this film, but there were three. I'd credit the writer, but there was two. Since I don't have all day, let's just wrap it up by saying this is a film that is very much worth your time. You'll laugh, you won't cry, you'll laugh some more, and maybe... just maybe, you'll feel nostalgic enough to call your old high school buddies, steal a laundry truck and go on a cross country tour of peewee hockey games. Probably not though.

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