Synopsis: Will O’Brien is given the opportunity to emcee a comedy show for his hero and has to decide if he wants to continue the life he has set up or to pursue his dream as a stand-up comedian.
Stars: Jimmy O. Yang, Alex Moffat, Cedric the Entertainer, Neal Brennan, Bill Burr, Whitney Cummings, Jermaine Fowler, Ken Jeong, Russell Peters, Debby Ryan
Director: Steve Byrne
Running Length: 90 minutes
TMMM Score: (8/10)
Review: There have been good movies starring stand-up comedians. There have been good movies filmed of stand-up specials. Has there ever been a good movie about stand-up comedians, though? The few I can think of off the top of my head, 1988’s Punchline and 2009 Funny People didn’t exactly set my world on fire and that I couldn’t come up with any others surely wasn’t a great sign. I was thinking about that before I started to watch The Opening Act because looking over the cast list and seeing a lot of familiar names I thought I had some reason to be a little concerned. Here was a movie written/directed by first-timer who was also a stand-up comedian starring a stand-up comedian and featuring a supporting cast that was nearly all from their same colleague pool. It was a crapshoot which way it would go, either Steve Byrne was going to kill his first time out or he’d bomb. Remarkably, The Opening Act is a winner and while it shows the tell-tale signs of a novice director, it also does more than hint at a great potential for Byrne on the horizon. I expected a film that was crass and far more juvenile but was pleased to find a touching story with a sweet soul that wasn’t afraid to hide it.
As far back as he can remember, Will O’Brien (Jimmy O. Yang, Patriots Day) has had comedy in his life. It was something his parents shared with him growing up and it became a source of comfort between him and his dad after his mother died when he was still a child. The laughs they shared carried over to adulthood and with his father now gone, he keeps those memories close and uses them to fuel his drive forward. Stuck in a job he hates working for an annoying boss (Bill Burr, Daddy’s Home) while dreaming of becoming a headlining stand-up comedian, he is having trouble even getting onstage at his local comedy club because he can’t get enough people to come see him. The thing is, Will is kinda good and when he is onstage tends to do well…something no one seems to really acknowledge since everyone is trying to get to that next level.
When his friend at the club, Quinn (Ken Jeong, Crazy Rich Asians) books a gig and can’t show up to host an out of town comedy event, he suggests Will for the job and it’s his first big opportunity to be seen by a reputable promoter. If he does well, this could lead to more jobs — all he has to do is make it through the weekend without getting into trouble and be funny. Oh, and the performer he’s introducing is his all-time favorite comedian, Billy G (Cedric the Entertainer), so it’s a chance to meet his comic hero and he’ll be rooming with a hard-partying comic (Alex Moffat, Ralph Breaks the Internet) who is determined to show Will a good time while he’s in town. What could go wrong?
Byrne devises three days of chaos for Will, some of it predictable and some of it not. It’s all delivered with an easy-going performance from Yang who never oversells some of the more bizarre circumstances he finds himself in nor does he underplay the dramatic moments afforded to his character throughout. These are important days for Will and Byrne knows it so there’s some respect given when it’s appropriate. That’s not to say the movie isn’t above some low-brow humor or off-color jokes, but these aren’t defense mechanisms it returns to when it gets stuck in a rut…Byrne seems to be more creative than going for gross out comedy and instead finds something important to say by putting Will in uncomfortable situations where he has to pick himself up and face consequences.
Most of the comedians are good as well, to varying degrees. Moffat is a riot as the ribald comic that could have been a terror but winds up being kind of a sweet Artful Dodger to Yang’s Oliver. I kept waiting for him to do something nasty that would change his trajectory but he’s exactly who he presents himself to be and that’s refreshing. I have said it before and will say it again, I am totally completely 100% over Jeong. Talk about someone who has milked his schtick to death. He’s the worst part of the movie by far and is agonizingly awful every second he’s on screen. As Yang’s love interest, Debby Ryan (Life of the Party) doesn’t have much to do but it’s more of a screenwriting problem than anything. She’s so non essential to the story it feels like it was a character Byrne was compelled to create or include just to establish something about Yang or to use as a plot device for one of Will’s comedic escapades in the film’s midsection.
A worthwhile effort that has heart to go along with the laughs, The Opening Act could also apply to Steve Byrne’s career as a writer/director. There are some fixes to be made and technique to be learned, especially in the establishing first twenty minutes that feel a bit awkward. However once the film hits its stride it keeps up a healthy dose of energy and good will towards, uh, Will until the very end. If his sophomore feature narrative film is as winning, sunny, and confident as this, he’s one to keep your eyes on. Ditto for Yang who makes an assured jump from stand-up comedian and sorta actor to unconventional leading guy with ease. This will surprise you.