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September 15, 2011

Movies You Missed 4: Conan O'Brien Can't Stop

Conan-cant-stop This week in new DVDs, a multimillionaire comedian is "unemployed" and wants your sympathy, and yes, he does appreciate the irony.

Each week I review a brand-new DVD release picked for me by Seth Jarvis, buyer for Burlington's Waterfront Video, where you can obtain these fine films. (In central Vermont, try Downstairs Video.) Most of these movies never hit our big screens. Maybe they lacked broad audience appeal, or maybe they languish in what AV Club critic Nathan Rabin calls "Straight-to-DVD Purgatory." Either way, I hope they'll surprise me. Welcome to Vermont, where the art house and the grindhouse are our house.

What You Missed

In early 2010, Conan O'Brien left his plum spot hosting "The Tonight Show," not exactly by choice. In order to bring back Jay Leno, NBC gave O'Brien a hefty compensation coupled with a legal requirement to stay off the air waves (including the Internet) for the next six months.

The ban apparently didn't extend to Twitter, where O'Brien opened an account and announced his 44-stop "The Legally Prohibited from Being Funny on Television Tour." It quickly sold out. Now Rodman Flender's documentary offers a backstage view of the tour, along with clips from the stage show itself.

Why You Missed It

According to Box Office Mojo, Conan O'Brien Can't Stop made it to a total of 24 theaters, not including any of our multiplexes, and grossed under $300,000 domestically. (If you're up north, you can also see it this week at Catamount Arts.) Seems most of Conan's fans were waiting for the DVD.

Should You Keep Missing It?

Is this doc for fans only? No. Is it an embarrassing famous-person pity party like Joaquin Phoenix's little hoax I'm Still Here? No. But neither is it one of those brilliant backstage documentaries that reveals enough about art and fame to fascinate even viewers who don't give a crap about its subject.

What it does reveal about O'Brien is interesting enough to keep you watching, even if, like me, you've barely followed Conan since his early years on "Late Night," where he came off as a depressive man trying to host a party, and gradually turned that hang-dogness from his weakness into his comic strength.

Can't Stop shows O'Brien still alternating between pessimistic contempt for everyone (including himself) and manic eagerness to perform (hence the title). He complains about signing autographs and interacting with fans, then insists on doing it anyway. When someone tells him a show was "amazing," O'Brien informs the camera that his natural response to the praise is "What was wrong with all the other ones?" He's not a glass-half-full kinda guy. And, onstage and off-, his bitterness and humiliation regarding the NBC situation are no joke.

If you're curious about the backstage lives of famous comedians, Can't Stop is a good bet. (O'Brien's interactions with his laid-back assistant, who weathers his moods with ease, are especially interesting.) If you want to laugh ... well... I've never been a huge fan of O'Brien's more scripted material, and the clips we see from his show aren't that funny. He actually spends a lot of the tour fronting his band in classic rock covers, sometimes with real rock stars helping out. A good time, but not groundbreaking comedy.

Verdict: In an excellent July AV Club piece about O'Brien and his ratings-troubled new show, Scott Tobias really nailed the problem with this documentary. Can't Stop can't handle or even acknowledge "the enormous disparity between the Conan it’s promoting and the far more troubled Conan that it’s actually documenting," he writes, before arguing that O'Brien is finally finding his post-NBC groove.

Indeed, if I learned one thing from the movie, it's that multimillionaire comedians do shit work, too. (The sequence where O'Brien and his staff have to race to come up with patter to introduce artists at Bonnaroo is a good example.) But, hey, at least he's well compensated compared with, well, most of us.

Other New DVD Releases You May Have Missed

Meek's Cutoff (read my review)
Hesher (Natalie Portman plays a drab grocery store clerk; Joseph Gordon Levitt plays a super-cool slacker dude. Seems wrong somehow.)
Incendies (Two Canadians investigate their Lebanese mother's dark past after her death.)
Bill Cunningham New York (A respected photographer snaps his way around NYC.)
Vidal Sassoon: The Movie (The 81-year-old designer gets his own documentary.)
Carrie Fisher: Wishful Drinking (The actress/writer tells her comic life story in HBO's version of her stage show.)

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