There’s a certain irony to the fact that the protagonist of Punching Henry is deemed incapable of carrying a show by himself, in that he can’t quite carry his own movie, either. While the movie hits some beats that are usually left out of similar movies about the trials and tribulations of being a stand-up comic (namely, the moments that are difficult to watch and get at uncomfortable truths about failure and mediocrity as one ages), it doesn’t get at anything particularly fresh, and it feels just as lost at sea as its main character.
Punching Henry, a follow-up to 2009’s Punching the Clown, stars Henry Phillips as a fictionalized version of himself. A stand-up comedian and “troubadour extraordinaire” on the older side of forty and with no children or romantic prospects, he returns to LA from a self-imposed exile in flyover country when it starts to sound like he might have his big break. A producer (J.K. Simmons) is interested in developing a TV show with him. They just have to drum up enough interest to be given the go-ahead by the studio. In the meanwhile, he stays with his friend Jillian (Tig Notaro, brilliant as always) and her partner Zoe (Stephanie Allynne), and takes gigs where he can get them to tide himself over.
The misfortunes that befall him are all fitting for the show that the network wants to produce, from having his car stolen within thirty minutes of getting to LA, to an mishap with two taxis and, later, “Funny Guitar Boy.” The way the network executives put it, it’ll be a show about “Sisyphus meets Charlie Brown” and “a loser’s loser,” red flags that Henry isn’t quite sure how to process. He wants a showcase for his material, his life’s work. They want to showcase his bad luck and failure. It isn’t hard to see where this is going, especially when the movie is framed by segments of an interview that Henry’s doing with a radio host (Sarah Silverman) in which he says that, instead of selling out, he’s failing at doing what he loves. Unfortunately, it’s a narrative device that doesn’t quite work. It lends the proceedings a certain mockumentary feel, but the scheme falls apart as the scenes in between don’t adopt the same tone.
The movie also doesn’t have much by way of a plot. This might be excusable as a symptom of the relative aimlessness of Henry himself, as he doesn’t really know what he’s doing besides pursuing comedy, but that would require, well— a more likeable loser. Sympathy is a dollar that can only be stretched so far, and it gives out halfway through the movie.