Happy St. Patrick's Day. Fittingly, here is a review of a film about a guy of Irish descent directed by the guy who directed 'Leprechaun 2.'
One of the highlights of the SXSW film festival is seeing a sold out comedy at the Paramount Theater. 1200 people laughing together is just a wonderful thing. Even better, for me, though, is seeing so many people in one room together for a documentary, as was the case for 'Conan O'Brien Can't Stop.' It's one of a few docs playing twice in such a big room this week, and (nothing against the also-great 'The Interrupters' and 'Senna') surely it's the most popular of the three.
Part of the reason for that popularity is obviously O'Brien's notoriety, and the promise of laughs is certainly a factor, as well. If I had to complain about anything, and it's somewhat appropriate with this film to be bitchy, it is actually too funny for a crowd that big. From the opening, in which the talk show host gives a surprising celebrity sighting to a star-homes tour bus, the audience could not quiet down. It's just one hilarious bit after another, and I missed many of those bits. So, I can't wait to see the doc again to fill in gaps. Also, it's just plain worthy of multiple viewings.
The focus is on O'Brien's 2010 'Legally Prohibited from Being Funny on Television' tour, which he did as a result of and response to his "Tonight Show" resignation following Jay Leno's renege-ation (everyone's familiar with the story, right? If not, here's the animated Next Media version, which shows up in the doc). From inception to rehearsals all the way to the final show in Atlanta, the talk show host made up for his getting screwed by ending up the subject of one of best tour docs in decades.
Directed by Rodman Flender, who in addition to the 'Leprechaun' sequel also helmed the 2004 music doc 'Let Them Eat Rock' (which I think kind of features O'Brien when the band performs on his show), 'Conan' is a primarily verite work that presents a candid behind-the-scenes look into the post-NBC months of the understandably angry personality.
Many will, if none have done so already, refer to 'Conan' as this year's 'Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work,' and there are plenty of similarities. We get to see another comedian on the road, talking about the disappointments of his career and exposing a side and depth of character we haven't seen from him up to now. The best thing, story-wise, in 'Conan' is how he goes from being so needy of notability and recognition at first, such as in that opening scene, to expressing great annoyance with fans who demand too much of him. In a way, it's like the anti-'Justin Bieber: Never Say Never.'
Of course, the Bieber doc, another rare non-fiction film that can easily sell out a large movie house like the Paramount, might have simply shielded the viewer from witnessing any negativity on the part of the pop star's relationship to autograph hounds and such. Perhaps he bitches about having to meet and take photos with his backup dancers' family and friends? Maybe he also swears and throws objects at his staff when he's frustrated?
Then again, some of 'Conan' almost seems unrealistically ingenuous, as if he's either playing up his cantankerous behavior and biting insults for the sake of Flender's camera or he's simply just kidding around regardless of being filmed. There are only a few moments in which it truly comes across that he's being mean-spirited and his words are met with discomfort rather than laughs (on screen, that is; all these bits are met with laughs from the viewer).
Maybe it's that I didn't hear enough of what O'Brien actually says, over the roar of the audience. Or, maybe it's that, for example, Jack McBrayer, who gets a hilarious heap of derogation from his old boss backstage, appears to be in on a gag rather than truly functioning as the Donovan to O'Brien's Bob Dylan (other cameos include Jon Hamm and Jennifer Westfeldt, Jim Carrey, Eddie Vedder and Megan Mullally and Nick Offerman). But 'Conan' isn't likely more prank than frank, though occasionally it does feel like a better version of 'I'm Still Here.'
'Conan' doesn't exactly try for substantiality the way the Joaquin Phoenix movie attempted and failed to do, and it's not entirely significant beyond being enormously entertaining, yet it shows us a valuable story that is (for the most part, I hope) as objective and inspiring a look at celebrity and the genuine pros and cons of fame and performance as we've ever seen. 'Conan O'Brien Can't Stop,' and neither will you be able to stop laughing during nor thinking about this winning documentary.