MANNY LEWIS. Starring: Carl Barron, Leeanna Walsman, and Roy Billing and Damien Garvey. Directed by Anthony Mir. Rated M (Coarse language, and mature themes). 89 min.
This is a feature film about about a stand-up comedian, who struggles to overcome personal problems at the peak of his career.
It tells the story of the life of Australian comedian, Manny Lewis. With all the laughter he engenders in others, Lewis feels isolated, insecure, and lonely. He admits to having trouble holding down a relationship and connecting with people, and he feels the anxiety associated with performing to connect with thousands of persons in his audience, but knowing that he is not really connecting with any one of them. It is a story about Manny Lewis coming, slowly and painfully, to connect with the woman he loves.
This is not a documentary movie, though it is obviously personally meaningful to Carl Barron who takes the lead role in it, and who tells a story that is written by him. Manny is a person who has a difficult relationship with his father, and is searching for a meaningful romantic attachment to his girl friend, Maria (Leeanna Walsman). The film is best described as a fictional account of Barron's life, but it has such authenticity and naturalness to it, one has to wonder how fictional it really is. But yet the best of comedians tell their stories as if they are real, whether they are real, or not. What a comedian must do, as Barron does, is to tell a story that is deeply felt.
The link between personal problems and comic genius is an intriguing one that has an extraordinary history. Robin Williams was reported to have suicided at the age of 63, andTony Hancock took his life in Sydney at age 44 while he was on a comedy tour of Australia. Spike Milligan thrilled millions of people with his comic genius while admitting to being profoundly disturbed. Garry McDonald was a legend in making people laugh, and withdrew from a major theatrical role, following "Mother and Son", because of clinical depression. As Manny tells his audience, which laughs uproariously at his aside, it is easy "to contemplate suicide, because you are in a convenient spot to do it".
In each case, with Manny included, one asks why artists who are so good at making other people happy are so anxious and complex in themselves. Not all comedians experience personal difficulties, but there is enough of a link between comic genius and personal difficulties to push one to look for the reasons why.
Is it because comedians dwell on things and their active imagination gets them into trouble? Does being funny provide needed "relief" from personal worries and anxiety? Do creativity and intelligence help a good comedian put a funny side to his or her private despair? Does a good comedian escape from a dark world in order to look for things that are light and funny? Or does laughter distract from feelings of weakness or vulnerability?
This film doesn't provide the answer to these questions, nor does it provide the explanation of the link between the light and the dark side of comic genius. It raises more questions that what has just been raised, but the movie stimulates the viewer brilliantly to look for explanation of a link.
With audiences of stage comedy so ready to laugh at the misery of others, but miseries they can identity with ("there is nothing wrong with being miserable", Manny says), this film is a fascinating excursion into the complexity of comic genius. Parts of the movie are like comic sketches on stage where Barron, as Manny Lewis, debates with himself his own inadequacies that could be someone else's as well. Barron is excellent as the true-to-life comedian, and Leeanna Walsman is very appealing as the girl he unsuccessfully tries not to love.
The film is wonderfully acted and directed, and taps vividly and spontaneously a part of Australian culture that seems totally authentic, and it keeps the viewer completely absorbed throughout. Made with warmth, intelligence, and sensitivity, it is a film that is well worth seeing.
Peter W Sheehan is associate of the Australian Catholic Office for Film and Broadcasting
Released March 12, 2015