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Entries in Harmontown [2014] (1)

Monday
Nov032014

Harmontown (2014)

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There have to be successful writers who aren't miserable jerks, right? Between Listen Up Philip last week, and the new documentary, Harmontown, I'm really beginning to wonder. Listen Up Philip at least had the benefit of being fictitious, whereas Neil Berkeley's film features a real-life monster who comes off as a living, breathing composite of every infantile "genius" you've ever read about.

In 2012, NBC fired Community series creator Dan Harmon from his own cult sitcom. A few months later, the notoriously difficult and outspoken writer hit the road with a live-tour version of Harmontown, his audience-participation podcast co-hosted by actor Jeff B. Davis (and presided over by D&D dungeon-master, Spencer Crittenden). To call the performance-venue antics Berkeley captured over thirty days a "comedy act" would be pushing it: Harmon frequently got trashed on stage while performing unscripted self-pity monologues--leaving Davis, Crittenden, and beleaguered girlfriend Erin McGathy holding literal, metaphorical, and emotional baggage just beyond the spotlight.

Harmontown gets really repetitive, really quickly. The gang pulls into town and performs for self-professed "nerds", "geeks", and "outcasts"--whose obsession with this irascible bully is really puzzling. They confuse Harmon's creations with his personal character, which, many friends and colleagues maintain, is solid, compassionate, and buried under tons of boozy, savage entitlement. We also get lots of Harmon staring off into the middle-distance; whether lost in thought, or holding in puke, it doesn't matter.

Judging by the events' raucous applause and laughter, die-hard "Harmenians" will likely have a blast with Harmontown. Casual Community fans, or people just interested in the doc's premise, may be left out in the scowling, questioning cold. I give Harmon and Berkeley credit for acknowledging the writer's backstage bewilderment at how a nation of "250 man-children" could be so enthralled with him. But self-awareness isn't enough. The film lacks dissent in the ranks of Harmon's hangers-on, a voice of reason to call him on his nonsense, to his face. In fairness, it's unclear if such an intervention would even work.

The writer has crafted a fine mythology for himself, from the shelved Jack Black pilot Heat Vision and Jack (about an astronaut and his talking motorcycle); to his getting canned from The Sarah Silverman Program; to this latest bout with NBC. But Harmontown offers little evidence that his celebrity would be as significant were it not for the stories surrounding his stories--fitting for a creator whose bread and butter is referential pop-kitsch.

Consider the film's sub-plot, involving Harmon's struggle to write two sitcom pilots for two rival networks while traveling the country. He confesses that he should have been done with both assignments before the tour kicked off. After receiving script notes from understandably pissed network execs, he goes on stage to brag about wasting the networks' time and money.* When Harmon finally gets his act together (kinda), he reads from his latest masterpiece, which sounds identical to several Community episodes.

Depending on your sensibilities going in, Harmontown is either a paean to one of this generation's boldest comedic minds (complete with sweeping music cues and slow-motion shots of enraptured crowds--deconstructed, of course, for maximum irony), or it's an unsettling commercial for bad behavior and mediocrity. Like the traveling show itself, Harmontown asks us to pay for the privilege of watching a brand-name writer flop around on stage without actual material. It's like those stories your parents liked to tell about Jim Morrison showing up for Doors concerts blitzed out of his mind and refusing to play his own songs--the ones that always ended with, "What an asshole".

*Ah, yes, skirting one's obligations--always a crowd-pleaser.