The opening act
Movies about stand-up comics haven’t exactly flooded the market. They do pop up now and then. Joaquin Phoenix played a guy who wanted to be one in “Joker.” Adam Sandler took Seth Rogen under his wing to make him a better one in Funny People. Tom Hanks and Sally Field were both looking for the big break on the stand-up stage in “Punchline.”
The newest entry is a sweet, simple, low-budget film called “The Opening Act”. It’s about a young man named Will (Jimmy O. Yang). Whose goal in life is to get up in front of crowds and make them laugh.
A sequence at the top previews some nicely streamlined storytelling from writer-director Stephen Byrne. He is also a comic and actor. With a lot going on that doesn’t rely on dialogue. There’s Will, as a young boy, and his father, laughing together, watching stand-up acts on TV. Their living room setting stays the same, but the film keeps jumping forward in time. As they continue watching and laughing (with the boy played by different actors) at the TV over the years. That part poignantly ends with adult Will (Yang) on the couch, still watching, but now alone, not laughing, his father obviously gone.
But his dream of doing what he’s been watching is very much alive. The odds are against him. He’s well aware that not many people make it in this profession. But when he’s not at his day job, sitting in a cubicle, dealing with auto insurance claims for a demanding boss (Bill Burr), he’s trying out material at open mic nights. He does get laughs from his audience, but he’s only gone as far as a bar & grill in Steubenville, Ohio.
The first step of that dream would be to perform at his first real club. A piece of luck comes his way when more-experienced fellow open mic comic Quinn (Ken Jeong). Can’t do an out-of-town emcee gig at an improv club, and offers the spot to Will.
There’s not a great deal of plotting to deal with here, which makes the film a little loose and more fun to watch. It quickly turns into a slice of stand up comic life story. In which you can just sit back and keep track of Will’s triumphs and travails and wonder if he’ll beat those odds.
The club, over the border in Pennsylvania, is run by stern and seemingly humorless Chip (Neal Brennan). Who reads a low key riot act to novice Will the moment he says hello. Chip’s suggestion to Will is that he’d better be funny. The gig incorporates a 12-minute routine as an opener, introducing feature act Chris (Alex Moffat from “SNL”), then introducing headliner Billy G (Cedric “The Entertainer”).
Well, Chris is a great comic, but an out-of-control drinker, womanizer, and party guy. Billy G is a star comedian (though Chris considers him to be over the hill) who’s kind of an unfriendly cuss to Will, especially when Will screws up his intro.
It’s a three-night gig, and the film focuses on the differences between each one of them. Will is understandably nervous, he does well, he has to deal with his first-ever hecklers. He doesn’t do well, his loyalty to his loving girlfriend back home is challenged. He wonders if maybe the comedy life isn’t in the cards for me.
Yang gives an amiable, enthusiastic performance, and you do wonder. If his Will is just too much of a nice guy to be in this cutthroat business. Jeong, even with limited time here, shows a bit of his wild and crazy side at the microphone. Moffat is terrific at presenting a character who may or may not be out of control. But it’s Cedric’s scenes – first when his character is unapproachable. Later as he offers Will some sage advice about the business – who contributes the finest acting. You can watch the video here.