Justin Molotnikov’s “Crying With Laughter” is a knotty and unpredictable film, that pushes through the personal crises of a semi-successful stand-up comedian to arrive at something genuinely dark and impressionable. It is a very good film. It would also make for a good double bill with the Gillian Robespierre’s “Obvious Child”, another work that used a moment of personal calamity as the springboard for great standup.
Joey Frisk (Stephen McCole) doesn’t seem like much as the film begins; he’s standing on a beach, swigging vodka, and spewing profanities into the sea, trying to assemble them into a coherent comedy set. It’s quite a surprise when we see him perform and the audience actually likes him. He’s part of what Stewart Lee might term “the alternative comedy experience”, in that he swears a great a deal and a lot of his set is rooted in subversive, bitter observation. We are surprised once more when we find out he has a young daughter, who he loves dearly, although relations with his ex wife Karen (Jo Hartley) are somewhat fraught, and he’s behind on rent.
Things go from bad to worse for Joey when a man claiming to have been to the same borstal as Joey as a kid, called Frank (Malcolm Shields), starts chatting to him at a sauna; Joey has no recollection initially, but then he can’t remember much of that period of his life.
It’s not long before Joey is encountering bastard hecklers, eviction, and maybe even a criminal record; but this is just the beginning for Joey, in what turns out to be a nightmarish ordeal for the man, and a film that moves away from the camaraderie of the backstage comedy club to a tough, nihilistic tale of revenge on the cobbled streets of Edinburgh and in the vaulted ceilings of buildings long since forgotten.
You may note that I have referred to Joey as if he were a real person throughout this review. Whilst I am generally distrustful of “my week from hell” films, as they’re a lazy structure that generally leave little room for emotional engagement, this one gets it right, and it’s down to two things; McCole’s haunted, tortured performance, and Molotnikiov’s taut, evocative direction. Edinburgh doesn’t just feel real, it feels palpable, and the things that happen to Joey feel like real, credible, awful things happening to an actual person. Joey might be deeply flawed, caustic, profane and a bit miserable, but his humanity begins to shine through, and he reveals himself to be a genuinely compassionate person.
The film also runs a good line in the way we often suspect, of the greatest comedians, that their comedy is a coping mechanism for some deep internal woes, and it has fun with that idea. The closing scene, which acts as a redemption of sorts, is masterful in the way it presents a man who just wants to get on with his life and turn the necessary corners; that kind of earnestness is endearing, and ultimately well-earned.
In the end, it’s no barrel of laughs, but “Crying With Laughter” is about as darkly implicit as its title, and as starkly memorable. A lean thriller, impressive, and made with a grim economy. It works very well, and it makes you hope that Molotnikov is allowed to write and direct more (as it is, unfortunately, he seems to be a TV director-for-hire).