Fear and Laughing Near Las Vegas – A Review of ‘Middle Man’

“You know what the hardest part of cutting someone into pieces is? It’s the bones.”

Following his mother’s death, the middle-aged Lenny Freeman (Park and Recreation‘s Jim O’Heir) leaves to confines of his safe life as a CPA and sets off to Las Vegas in his mother’s ’53 Oldsmobile to take a shot at his long-time dream of becoming a stand-up comic. Naively hiring a stranger named Hitch (Andrew J. West) as his manager, Lenny soon finds himself in way over head. He’s forced to confront the fact there’s no audience for the wholesome 1950s humor on which he was reared. To elicit laughs at a dive comedy club on the outskirts of Vegas, he has to cultivate far more sinister material that juxtaposes his usual harmless demeanor. The laughs come a plenty but at the cost of much spilled blood. The lights of Vegas glow in the distance but it’s becoming increasingly unlikely Lenny is ever going to reach them.

There’s nothing quite like a good bleak comedy that can seamlessly oscillate from humor to horror. In Middle Man, the feature film debut of director/writer Ned Crowley, blood splatter is played for laughs, for both the comedy club audience and the film’s viewers. I howled with laughter at Lenny’s first successful routine, which was well-earned and intimately authentic in the way it was shot. For an instant, I forgot the horror that just occurred in order to facilitate the scene. It’s a moment to cheer before being snapped back into the darkness.

The world the film presents is familiar but subtly surreal. Everyone’s a comedian, from the pros on stage to the testy waitress and impersonation-prone cop, each with their own brand of humor or shtick. For the first third of the film, it seems everyone but Lenny is cracking jokes. He could be easily lost if not for his oversize and cluelessly innocent heart, which solidifies his status as an outsider. Jim O’Heir is so effective in the role, making it all to easy to believe how fumbles his way into multiple murders. More often than once, the combination of O’Heir’s mannerisms and appearance evokes the image of Chris Farley at an age he never lived to see. Perhaps this correlation rosily colored my impression of the film and its lead, but O’Heir left me enamored. He’s not hard to root for, though with each scene the odds of any sort of happy ending narrows greatly.

From it’s quirky beginning to final moments straight out of a David Lynch nightmare, the journey of the Middle Man is a surprising and shocking descent into the darkest corners of show business that can destroy even the purest of souls. Prepare to laugh, and then think twice about ever embarking on an entertainment career unless you have the guts for it (yours or someone else’s in your trunk).

Middle Man opens theatrically in Atlanta, Boston, Chicago, LA, New York, and Seattle on Friday, June 9, 2017. It’ll be available on VOD platforms this fall.