‘Conan’ provides character worthy of study

  • By Robert Horton Herald Movie Critic
  • Friday, June 24, 2011 12:01am
  • Life

Like most people who get laid off from their jobs last year, Conan O’Brien spent much of 2010 looking for work.

Unlike most people who get laid off from their jobs, he also pocketed a multimillion-dollar severance package and did a 30-night live tour of comedy and music, selling out gigs from coast to coast.

He had to do something with his time, because his contract with NBC, which dumped him from hosting duties at “The Tonight Show” after a bizarrely brief period, stipulated that he couldn’t be back on the air for a certain number of months. So Conan hit the road.

That “Legally Prohibited from Being Funny on Television” tour is documented in “Conan O’Brien Can’t Stop,” a compulsively watchable documentary directed by Rodman Flender. O’Brien emerges as a vivid, smart and somewhat voraciously showbizzy personality.

The film thankfully spends little time detailing the “Tonight Show” follies, although O’Brien frequently mentions his anger about the debacle. And, being a post-modern kind of guy, he also self-consciously assesses the spectacle of a popular millionaire entertainer whining about losing a TV show.

O’Brien also states that in his concert appearances he’s having the time of his life, and that’s believable. The film is oddly like a rock ‘n roll documentary, with scenes of the exhausted star trying to fend off autograph-seekers (but invariably putting himself out there anyway), riffing with his staff backstage and amping himself up for the next show.

In the backstage material, we clearly see that O’Brien relies on a practiced form of the put-on. He’s constantly mock-insulting his writers or pretending to fire his patient assistant.

O’Brien’s compulsion to riff comes across as surprisingly naked and surprisingly needy. Of course on some level he knows the documentary camera is watching him, so he’s going to be “on,” but still, the guy is driven by some comedy demons.

On stage, he plays guitar, sings “Poke Salad Annie,” and entertains guest cameos by Jim Carrey and Eddie Vedder. But this isn’t a “concert film.” Less than half the movie is the live act and that’s all to the good.

The most interesting thing about “Conan O’Brien Can’t Stop” is that it’s not that great as a comedy, but it succeeds as a character study. In this case, the character just happens to be a funny person, but that might not be the primary takeaway from this film.

“Conan O’Brien Can’t Stop”

More character study than concert film, this documentary chronicles the fired talk-show host’s 2010 live comedy tour. As a comedy the movie is so-so, but O’Brien emerges as a surprisingly “on” and needy entertainer, mock-insulting his staff and exulting in the heavy requirements of a live performance.

Rated: R for language.

Showing: Varsity

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