‘The Opening Act’ Movie Review: Steve Byrne’s Stand-Up Story Greeted With Crickets
Generally speaking, I hope that films are good — not all are, and watching enough of them will help one come to terms with this fact quickly enough. Barring this, I can hope that some aspect of a film is good: the writing, acting, camerawork and so on. If those fail, I can at least ask for a good scene or two.
My optimism that any of these elements would be positive in The Opening Act were quashed within the film’s first few minutes, so I was left with one hope remaining: in a film about stand-up, surely the sets themselves would be good. We’ll get back to this later.
The Opening Act is the feature-length directorial debut of actor and comedian Steve Byrne, best known for his work on the admittedly not all-that-well-known TBS sitcom Sullivan & Son. I struggle to think of who would enjoy The Opening Act aside from fans of Byrne’s show, but there are seemingly too few of them for me to feel like the film is for anyone at all.
This is not for lack of passion on Steve’s part. The film, which reads a tad bit like autofiction, stars Jimmy O. Yang as Will, a small-town comedian who gets a slightly bigger small-town break as an emcee for three nights a Pittsburgh comedy club. This gig ultimately brings Will into close contact with Billy G (played by Cedric the Entertainer), a legendary comic who served as a major inspiration for the young Will.
Also appearing is Ken Jeong as every character Ken Jeong has played in the last decade and Alex Moffat as Chris, a charismatic comedian seemingly on the verge of greater things. To describe the plot of The Opening Act is to describe the plot of virtually all movies ever made: there is a hero who encounters conflict which he predictably overcomes. No scenario is interesting enough to provide any tangible variation on this formula.
This would, in theory, be ignorable if the movie was funny, which brings me to the stand-up bits themselves. Surely the trouble about filling a movie about stand up comics with actual stand up comics is that they’d be hesitant to use their best material in a film written by someone else? Or maybe Byrne himself wrote all of the bits but didn’t want to use his best jokes either?
Perhaps it’s neither and I’m just fishing for a reason as to why the movie could be so deeply un-funny; at one point, Chris has his audience in a rapture after making jokes about “Florida man” and the loudness of the screams of women tennis players — real, bleeding-edge, 2020 stuff.
All of this is setting aside the movies more-than-casual sexism and fruitless diversions into predatory gay man stereotypes — not that these things should be set aside, just that I can’t be bothered to harp on this film any more. Good on Byrne for getting a platform to tell this story — a story that, at its heart, is about how difficult comedy can be and how important honesty is at the heart of it all. If only he had told it better.