by Ben Sachs
Carolla's character, Bruce Madsen, was once the cohost of a popular TV series highly reminiscent of the star's old program, The Man Show. His onscreen partner has since become a popular late-night talk show host, like Carolla's old partner, Jimmy Kimmel, while Madsen's spent the last decade doing reality TV appearances and voice-over work, as Carolla has. Between auditioning for second-banana sitcom roles—and failing to land any of them—Madsen tours the country as a stand-up comic. The work is demoralizing, and his personal life isn't much better. He's broke, and his vindictive ex-wife is pressuring their teenage daughter to attend an expensive college he can't afford. He hasn't had a girlfriend in years, and loneliness has made him bitter. The film depicts his life as a series of humiliations, most of them played as comedy. To quote another stand-up comic, Madsen can't get no respect—from comedy club owners, obnoxious fans, hotel clerks, his agent, his ex-wife, his former TV cohost, and a beautiful widow he keeps trying in vain to bed.
A quick Internet search reveals that Carolla is in fact married and still quite successful. He's had two books on the New York Times best-seller list since 2010, and his comedy podcast draws millions of listeners. He is a father, though his twin children are just eight years old. I didn't know any of this until after watching Road Hard, and I've got to admit that Carolla succeeded in punking me. The unambitious filmmaking, which suggests a middling network sitcom, led me to believe that Carolla and cowriter-codirector Kevin Hench weren't trying very hard to transform his lived experience into fiction. Moreover I thought the film's unrelenting bitterness had to be a genuine expression of pent-up frustration. And the supporting cast of comedians well past their prime (David Alan Grier, Jay Mohr, Howie Mandel, Larry Miller, Sam McMurray) only heightens the flavor of sour grapes.
In Carolla's defense, he reserves plenty of criticism for his alter ego. Madsen comes to realize that he's largely to blame for his problems having rested too long on the reputation of his TV show, assuming he could stay famous by being himself. It also becomes apparent—if not, oddly enough, to Madsen—that his homophobic, chauvinistic, and generally abrasive shtick makes many spectators dislike him. Apparently this aspect of the film is genuinely autobiographical, as Carolla has aroused controversy in the past with disparaging remarks about women, homosexuals, and ethnic minorities. Road Hard makes at least one concession to political correctness by showing Madsen to be a loving father to his adopted Chinese daughter, just like it counters the pervasive self-regard by showing Madsen to be loyal to his friends. In hindsight, though, I wonder if these displays of sensitivity aren't just more bullshit.
Overlapping with tomorrow's screening of Road Hard is the Chicago premiere of In the Basement, the latest provocation from Austrian director Ulrich Seidl. (It plays at 6:45 PM as part of the Siskel Center's European Union Film Festival, with a repeat screening on Wednesday at 6 PM.) Seidl has been blurring fact and fiction for some time, and like Carolla, he's inspired many charges of insensitivity. In both his narrative-driven films and his observational documentaries, Seidl presents nonprofessional performers doing objectionable things in meticulously designed (and strikingly beautiful) shots. The director always works in full agreement with his subjects, yet the films are so often cringe-inducing that I understand why some viewers would rather think of him as an exploiter. Why would people willingly present themselves as repugnant? Too bad Carolla will be on the other side of town after Basement lets out tomorrow—I'm sure he'd lead an enlightening Q&A.
Like Seidl's earlier documentaries Animal Love and Jesus, You Know, Basement moves between several short vignettes about painfully alienated people. The subjects include collectors of Nazi paraphernalia, a middle-aged woman who dotes on a doll as if it were a live baby, some racist gun enthusiasts, and a handful of sadomasochists. "Many Austrians spend more time in the basement of their home than in their living room, which is often only for show," Seidl writes in a director's statement. "In the basement they actually indulge their needs, their hobbies, passions and obsessions." The politically incorrect joke underlying Basement is that the subjects, no matter how repulsive they might seem, are in fact wholly ordinary, their "secret" lives arranged as tidily as any schoolroom or department store display. Ultimately it's the audience that this poignant gross-out comedy wants to interrogate. What passions and obsessions are we hiding from the world?