Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (April 13, 2017)
An indie comedy with a barbed edge, 2017’s Punching Henry takes a look into aspects of show business. 40-something Henry Phillips (Henry Phillips) plugs away at his career as a comedic songwriter/performer, but he finds it difficult to gain traction.
When TV producer Jay Warren (JK Simmons) hears of this situation, he wants to involve Henry in a program about the life of the struggling entertainer. To participate – and hopefully ignite his dormant career – Henry heads to Los Angeles.
However, matters take a turn when Henry plays a local club and flops after a heckler (Clifton Collins Jr.) harasses him. Jay sees this and decides to shift the focus to turn Henry into the star of a reality series about the woes of a loser. Henry needs to deal with this change of fortune and how it impacts his life and career.
The elephant in Punching’s room comes from the film’s on the nose sense of self-reference. The movie casts Phillips as a fictionalized version of himself and it does so in a manner that seems a bit clever-clever. The decision to mix reality and fiction makes little sense, as I see no reason to blur the lines in this way.
These choices might be more logical – and also forgive various cinematic sins – if Punching embraced the reality show framework in its background. Arguably the biggest problem I find here comes from the movie’s lack of cohesion, as it ambles from one comedic bit to another without much to make these components mesh.
If Punching opted for a faux documentary/reality TV vibe, these bits might work better, but since it ostensibly attempts to tell a “real story”, the result sputters. There’s little actual plot to be found, and it feels like the filmmakers just cobble together random scenes.
Not that Punching doesn’t attempt some form of overall narrative, as it does set up Henry’s arc. Unfortunately, it gives us some of the most awkward, unnatural exposition on record, especially as delivered by an utterly superfluous radio host played by Sarah Silverman. Every so often, the movie grinds to a halt so she and Henry can tell us some aspect of his past, all of which a better-constructed film could’ve told us in a more natural manner.
When Punching doesn’t shove exposition down our throats, it tosses random stabs at comedy our way. The film comes with a surprisingly good cast, and it makes sure it allows each and every one of these folks some form of “star moment”.
This doesn’t work, mainly because it requires the movie’s semblance of a narrative to suddenly halt just to give Actor A or Actor B a few minutes in the spotlight. These bits rarely connect to the overall story, and they feel awkward and unnatural.
The only successful moments of Punching occur when it delves into the world of modern show business. As network programmer Mara, Michaela Watkins delivers a delightfully edgy performance, and her attempts to find a successful niche for Henry’s act manage the movie’s few moments of insight.
Otherwise, we find ourselves stuck with random bits of comedy and a rambling narrative. Punching Henry feels more like an audition reel than an actual movie.