Throwback Thirty – Punchline (1988)

220px-punchline_movie_poster5_star_rating_system_2_and_a_half_stars At work today, a friend and I were trying to come up with our fantasy dinner party guest list. You know, where you pick 5 people living or dead to attend your perfect party. Looking for inspiration I did the only thing someone in this day and age can: I Googled it. I was shocked to find one person picking Tom Hanks for her top 5. Tom Hanks? Out of all of the people of the past or present they’d pick Tom Hanks. But, I guess, he’s Hollywood’s Mr Nice Guy. He’s for sure one of the most charming actors around. And I don’t think I can imagine a more charming pairing than Tom Hanks and Sally Field. Sally Field is so fucking adorable that together I guess you’re just gonna be constantly smacked around the face with charm. It’s like that Black Books episode about the travel writer. One of the quotes suggesting the reader was “swept away on a wave of charm”. And, knowing very little about Punchline, that’s exactly how I felt going in to today’s TBT film. I couldn’t imagine this film being so bad that I ended up not still loving the two leads.

In Punchline Tom Hanks and Sally Field both play wannabe stand-up comedians who are struggling every night at a local comedy club trying to be noticed. Hanks plays Steven Gold a medical school dropout who is secretly trying to make an impression on every talent scout who comes his way. Field plays Lilah Krytsick a housewife and mother whose husband disapproves of the time she’s spending outside the family home. Steven has an undeniable star quality but hiding a whole host of psychological issues. Lilah hasn’t quite mastered the jokes but has something about her that works with an audience. The pair become friends and Steven is able to help coax the inner comic out of Lilah. All fine until he starts to develop feelings for her and his behaviour becomes more and more erratic. Will either of them keep their personal lives on track enough to star in a competition where the prize is to appear on a television show?

So, as you could have worked out from the title, Punchline is a film about stand-up comedy and, boy, does this film have a lot to say about stand-up comedy. The tone of this film is very weird. It takes the business of stand-up way too seriously but never gives that same level of care to anyone else. There are hints at development with the characters but even the two leads feel underdeveloped. The love story that becomes a central theme doesn’t make sense and the plot veers off in too many different directions. The film focuses on the wrong thing: the jokes. Unfortunately, it doesn’t have very many of them. There are some okay examples of one-liners as we see the fake comedians take to the stage but, it’s hard to deny, that most of the material just wouldn’t work in real life. It can barely raise a titter.

The problem is, there are more than enough moments within Punchline that prove it could have been a great film. The moments where Hanks and Field are hanging out and discussing comedy are fantastic. I enjoyed the times when Steven is encouraging Lilah to write jokes about her own life and get to the core of what is and isn’t funny. The pair is, as I expected, absolutely charming together and their friendship could have been a fantastic thing. Then things try to get a bit dark and everything gets lost. Lilah’s marriage isn’t perfect: I can get behind that. But then Steven suddenly falls in love with her and tries to persuade her to leave her husband? It comes out of nowhere. I mean, the narrative briefly tries to show us that Steven is on the edge of a breakdown earlier but it still doesn’t quite meld. Hanks starts the film as one version of his character and, without any real development, suddenly changes into a much darker one.

Now, I’m all for dark comedy and there are some great moments where this works. It’s just that together it doesn’t fit. This film is trying so hard to so many things that it never gets anything right. It’s a story about a woman’s failing marriage, the rise and fall of wannabe comedians, a tragic love story, and the breakdown of a young man. None of these elements are handled with enough care to work together and it feels like you’re watching four different films at once. Punchline could have been a great film if it had taken more risks. If it had been more cutting and dared to look at the darker side of stand-up. Instead, it just confuses everyone and relies on the good nature of its two leads to get through it.

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