“The Opening Act” A not quite ready for primetime player [MOVIE REVIEW]
“The Opening Act” is an attempt to illustrate the difficulties that one young man faces in trying to follow his lifelong dream of becoming a standup comedian.
Will Chu, a 20-something Asian American working a lifeforce-sucking job as an insurance adjuster charged with finding ways around paying legitimate claims. As far as his boss Barry is concerned, a claim denied is a successful outcome and he leads his troops with a cold smile, demonic eyes, and a cliché for every occasion. Will wants to be anywhere but there but he needs this job.
He can often be found at the local comedy club open mike night begging for his 5 minutes. The rules must be followed and the most important one is that no one gets their 5 minutes unless they have brought in two paying guests. Will has tapped out his contacts and is too embarrassed to go back to the well. He’s had success and thinks that that should be enough. His biggest cheerleader is his friend Quinn, another Asian American comedian who has climbed high enough on the ladder that he gets his time on stage without the prerequisite shills.
Quinn is about to hit the bigger time and is offered an opening act gig for a semi-famous comedian. He’ll need someone that weekend to take over his MC duties at the Philadelphia Improv and he thinks of Will. It would be several steps up the ladder for Will, involving 10 minutes on stage to warm up the audience and then introduce the big acts scheduled that evening, one of whom is his lifelong comic hero, Billy G. He’s not sure he can handle it, but Quinn says he has to act quick or it will disappear. Quinn felt the same way about his first leap but the only way to know is to try. Waiting, when the next opportunity may not come, is a big mistake. Will says yes and goes to his boss to ask for Friday off. Despite the fact that Will has finished his work for the week and has a spotless record, the boss says no. It’s now or never and Will takes the big leap and quits his job. There will be no going back.
Arriving at the Improv, he is given the lay of the land and the rules of the game by Chris, a comedy entrepreneur who controls at least three other Improvs around the country. Be funny, get off the stage when the red light flashes, and introduce the comedians the way they request. Succeed and there will be other gigs; screw up and it’s three strikes and you’re out.
Trying to navigate the land of too much alcohol, too many drunk women, and too many big egos is a lot to overcome for a straight arrow like Will. There will be screw ups but also good advice along the way. The best lessons are: make your comedy personal and failure is its own pathway to learning.
Written and directed by standup Steve Byrne, the film is littered with comics working the clubs and television circuits. I, personally, do not follow the circuit and recognized only a few of the comedians in roles both large and small.
Will, played by Jimmy O. Yang known for his work on “Silicon Valley,” is sincere and is most comfortable when performing on stage, and effective when bombing. Cedric the Entertainer is a standout as Billy G. By far the most experienced actor in the film, he adds depth where there was none, and carefully allows the audience to see behind the curtain. Cedric the Entertainer anchors the story for the other characters. Ken Jeong as Quinn, Will’s champion and friend, is given very little to work with but is credible as a driving force in Will’s goals.
For better or worse, Byrne has cast many other standups in supporting roles, some of which work, others of which are too incidental. Bill Burr is fine as Barry, the aphorism spouting insurance boss; Alex Moffat as Chris the Improv comedian who shares a condo for the weekend with Will, is charmingly smarmy; and Neal Brennan as the “three strikes you’re out” Improv manager carries off his no nonsense role better than it’s written. Whitney Cummings makes an effective turn as a headliner at the Improv.
And herein lies the rub. Byrne’s script is superficial and his direction relies entirely on delivery in the hands of too many inexperienced actors. The film, which at times is quite sweet, never rises to the level of engrossing or enlightening. We don’t feel that this is a life or death decision for Will. Yang does the best he can with the material, but, like in standup, the material doesn’t sustain the laughs or the story.
“The Opening Act” is sincere and soft focus, but these are not really compliments as this story needed a slightly harder edge to stand out. It wasn’t time wasted but it could have been so much better.
Releasing On Demand on October 16.