Why is it that movies about comedians are never very funny? In the Aussie import Entertaining the Dwights, Brenda Blethyn plays Jean, a once-promising stand-up queen whose routine is full of hoary old puns involving ironing, menopause and sack-of-shit husbands. To watch her, you'd think Roseanne never happened: Her jokes sound more like crusty Henny Youngman one-liners in drag, or maybe some of Audrey Meadows' lamer comebacks from old episodes of The Honeymooners.
In a movie about over-the-hill dreamers realizing their lot in life, an unfunny comedienne isn't necessarily a bad thing. But director Cherie Nolan clearly wants us to view Jean as an unsung talent: The opening montage places her in snapshots next to British legends like Benny Hill, and when she gets her big audition, we're made to think it's the uncaring, Blackberry-obsessed whippersnappers who just can't appreciate Jean's creaky setups and punch lines. Never once does a character suggest what those of us in the audience want to scream: Get some decent material, lady.
If you can get past its low-laugh quotient, Introducing the Dwights works better as a maudlin domestic drama than a comedy. Divorced from another has-been entertainer and castrating mother to two teenage boys, Jean may not be able to put a spin on a joke, but she knows how to make the insults sting at home.
When her dewy innocent Tim (Khan Chittenden) falls for around-the-way muffler-shop employee Jill (Emma Booth), she's understandably panicked. Jill represents everything Jean can't be to her son, or to any man, for that matter, and she lashes out at her first-born the way Michael Richards would a heckler. "You gonna be pounding away on rent-a-ride over there?" a drunken Jean spits out during one of her many queasy tirades.
Still, the disconnect between Jean's smothering homelife and her supposedly uproarious stage act eats away at the film like a termite. Blethyn's old pal Mike Leigh might know how to mix misery with sentimentality he directed her to an Oscar nomination in the improvised family drama Secrets and Lies but it's a combustible concoction, one Nolan can't seem to master. She has the look and the mood of the film right: The hand-held cameras and drab surroundings underline the Dwights' sad, not-quite working-class rut. And in Blethyn she has an expert performer who's up for anything, including making herself look like a sneering, needy terror of a woman. But for the movie to be what it truly wants to be namely, the Australian equivalent of a bittersweet indie comedy like Little Miss Sunshine or What's Eating Gilbert Grape it needs to generate a smile or two amid all the desperation.
Showing at the Maple Art Theatre, 4135 W. Maple Rd., Bloomfield Hills; 248-263-2111.
Michael Hastings writes about film for Metro Times. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.