reviewed by Audy Elliott
– Dan Harmon to the camera prior to going on stage to his show Harmontown.
Disheveled, schlubby, caustic, sappy, selfless, heart-driven, pedestrian, manic, contrived
Harmon’s direct interaction and natural ability in front the camera
His podcast co-star, Spencer, and his story
Harmon, at times, shows real empathy that drives the purpose of the narrative
Manipulation of movie’s message is sickening with insincerity
Harmon aims for a too self pleasing tone
Movie is not telling a story as much as it’s a commercial for the podcast
Dark moments seemed contrived and forced
Documentary wanted to come across raw, unfiltered, but was ultimately whiny and ungrateful
WHAT THE MOVIE IS ABOUT
A direct, unabashed disgruntled documentary on the comedy Community’s creator and show-runner Dan Harmon, and what makes him creatively tick. After being fired from his signature creation, Harmon hits the road with his popular podcast and performs live for his cult-like fan base across the country. Known for his wit, cynicism, and disarming vulnerability, his podcast Harmontown finds Dan Harmon bathed in the adoration of his fans as he confronts his personal demons and tries to breathlessly come out on the other side untethered by the very genius that strangles him.
WHAT THE MOVIE IS REALLY ABOUT
The movie is about a self created platform for Harmon to bellow out his nerd Braveheart war anthem about his corporate studio grievances and past mainstream failures, while still trying to find his imprint in an industry that mostly doesn’t know what to do with him. Dan Harmon was the creator of a half hour sitcom on NBC called Community that focused on several underdog students at a community college that band together week after week to uplift themselves while assigned to the meta neurosis of the man that created its world (Harmon), a self anointed underdog. After being seen by NBC’s Executive brass as “difficult” to work with, Harmon was canned by season 4 from his own creation, in which Community experienced a “Lindsay Lohanian” drastic creative nose dive. With nothing to do or people to slovenly piss off, Harmon decided to start out with a podcast that gave him a platform to rail against his self-perceived network injustices off his doughy chest, plus immediately stay in direct contact to the very subculture congregation that worships him. There are eerie parallels to 2011 Conan O’Brien’s “Can’t stop" tour that is inadvertently plagiaristic – O’Brien took a hiatus after being fired by the same tone deaf corporate deathwatch (NBC) due to O’Brien being too irreverent, and not the perfect toaster salesman charlatan compared to Jay Leno. Harmontown mirrors, unwittingly, the same kind of presentation and story, but without him being the subject nor delivers the focus to push through his next lazy unmotivated move nor with any backbone. Harmon wants a job, just not necessarily the one networks dangle over him. In this movie he is not so much the mayor of Harmontown as much as he is the town’s whino, sleeping on a park bench, using his old failed news clippings as a slip cover. Of course this comes across harsh, but that is how Harmon wants you to see him. He doesn’t want you to love him unless he allows you to, by which he keeps control of his image of a man cursed by his talent, when really it’s his insecurities.
One of the more natural takes was to study Harmon’s character through his show, where you see him perform and put on “an act” to his audience, but keep the real façade with the viewer. On stage, he uses his pig pen deprecation as a force for entertainment, but the viewer is savvy in knowing it’s just for self-inflicted shits and Pagliacci like sad giggles. Up close and personal, we are simultaneously rewarded by watching Harmon obscenely obsess over each show in every town leading up to the opening minute, at which point Harmon takes over and the podcast is abrasively transformed into a tele-evangelized experience for the comic con sect. Harmon plays the role of our disheveled Joel Osteen. Harmontown is his platform, and its fans are his congregation. Harmon always seems, on the surface at least, to faintly acknowledge the fans true “gee whiz” graciousness, as not to let someone know he is affected. There is a stray puppy quality to him where no matter what he attains in his career he is always looking for acceptance.
The movie presentation is routine and pasty white pedestrian. Editing in the beginning sloppily fits in cursory snippets of his early career without delving into it with much of an investment – as if he remembers, but doesn’t want to “talk about it." There is an undercurrent tone handed to us, with a sorry mix of self detonated montage of failures, into current scenes of him still looking for the next big thing, but not having the interest to find out if it’s truly out there. Just like his stories in Community, he is always looking for ways to push people away, or forcibly convince someone that his “genius” is the very debate of blessings vs. curse, but really – it touches of mawkish insincerity as if Harmon wants us to believe it, even though he is not sure he does. It’s glaringly apparent about midway through that he wants to push the viewer away with a fickle recklessness, coming back only when he’s ready with nails and hammers in hopes of repairing the narrative destruction just in time to feel pleased with himself for looking out for the voiceless nerd. Sorry, Harmon, it’s too little and all too late. The movie for the most part, is done with a sniveling darkness, that at times spills over turbulently on stage thereby train-wrecking whatever good will the movie tries to stabilize between its good nature intensity, and Harmon’s brittle, fragile ego. There are methods to his madness in a very young Frankenstein kind of way, hodgepodging his comedy and dark bravura onto anyone within ear shot. It’s quite apparent that he holds a magnetic resonance over his fan base, with a Mussolini dictatorial smirk, like a comedic communist in cargo shorts kind of way. But that pomposity falls on deaf ears and is unseen by nerd blindness. He is the messiah to a generation that doesn’t need to be saved.
Harmontown’s main theme throughout the documentary is that the Super Nintendo nerd subculture is becoming mainstream pop culture with an ever gaining pop comic velocity. It’s that burgeoning rocket fuel of a movement that gives Harmon permission to even have a voice to begin with. It’s the schlepped out loser tone of voice that makes you sick, with cloying messages about how nerds are being held down and he, their ever fighting Joan of Arc, ready to be burned at the mainstream stake for their collective sycophancy. Harmon has to realize, that no one is asking him to roll his own dungeon master dice and fall on his imaginary dragoon spear. He carries his own self infliction into the story that frankly we could do without for the betterment of the viewing experience. I’m not interested in him beating himself up while also tearing down everything around him for the pursuit of his artistic goals. The true narrative voice this movie needed, is how Harmon persevered, wrote shows, performed comedy and show ran all on his own terms – that is the underdog story that we want. That is the story that needed to be told – but it went missing like Harmon’s self confidence. There were true results in the film from its testimonials, from its fans, and at times from Harmon himself, but more often than not it would come across too “stagey” to even get the melodramatic moments correct. The film, to its detriment, continuously struggled to find the line between self loathing and cloying: developing a recipe for a sensitive sullen Molotov cocktail.
Harmon does have moments of genuine altruism, which many come in the form of the discovery of his fellow podcaster Spencer. Spencer’s role in Harmontown is to administer the board game “Dungeons and Dragons” as the omnipotent dungeon master, to such great results that he invariably became a permanent co-host for Harmontown. With that, Spencer has developed a fan base, and is clearly a little brother of sorts for Harmon, as Harmon actually wants to put him under a padawan like mentoring program (even though Yoda may argue he is too old for the Jedi ways). It’s reiterated throughout the film, that Spencer is self admittedly lucky for being on the receiving end of his once in a lifetime opportunity to go from his mother’s basement to Harmon’s penthouse. The dynamic screams a little Jay and Silent Bob, but it’s a real relationship, in which Harmon proudly bequeaths onto the young dragon master. No matter what heartstrings this movie aims to entice or manipulate, there is a complexity, haunting Harmon that hazily smacks off in a lovable turn the other cheek kind of way. This is how he wants to be seen with the tug of war of emotional and creative animosity that confounds Harmon’s voice towards borderline silliness and trite. This movie is crippled with its hackneyed “the sun will come out tomorrow” deliveries that stalemate on underwhelming autopilot.
One of the lesser inspired scenes, is during a stop in Nashville, Harmon has too much to drink during a live taping. Some hillbilly gives him his jar of moonshine, and Harmon, with a great delight and forceful thirst, laps it up to the point of hysterical oblivion. The next day, he listens to the post production playback, and from his unkempt point of view is fully distraught over the whole incoherence of the previous night’s performance. He decides, that in order to construct his Mea Culpa, and make it about himself, without calling attention to it, the next night's participants get to air their personal grievances in front of the audience to bring some sort of cleansing that would make an A.A. meeting look like parent/teacher night. It’s insulting to watch in the most unabashed hacky way possible. He wants the scene to come off like he is making amends, but he fails to realize he is cheating the viewer who are there to focus on him and not the problem of his fans. The scene crystallizes the many selfish missteps that hamper Harmontown from being a good ride into his mad scientist genius brain, instead choosing to focus on the podcast as a wobbly crutch, in his search for the eternal entertainment industry pat on the back to replace current “kick me” sign.
As you can see its Harmon that gets in his own way again. It comes across as self diluted stinky cologne of washed up doubt that he wears in to gain your empathy. It's over-inflated heart meets wrinkled up, emotionally frayed sleeve. He proclaims that he is not an improviser – but that is not the issue with Harmon, from a pure comedic standpoint – he wants to be Robin Williams but isn't. There is no real torment with Harmon except the one he puts his closest company in. He is making mountains out of neurotic molehills. He is walking into a crowd that is there to see him, playing with house money, but is insistent to have this challengeable, hypnotic show, that will get the better of him, until he has to tap into some reservoir of semi-genius to save himself in giving the people what and who they came to see.
As far as documentaries go, this one had very little to say in terms of a fascinating character study or a story with real adversity. Harmon is really not that fascinating of a person, but does have talent: just not the level of talent he thinks he should be or tries to sell himself to be, which is the very damaged, grief stricken writer, redeemable no matter how much of an asshole he wants you to view him as. Like other documentaries I have reviewed, Harmontown doesn’t have the focus or professional perseverance of Conan O’Brien’s Can’t Stop nor the witty self assurance of George Takei in To be Takei. Harmon takes pleasure on being the kid; if he can’t play the game by his own rules, he will take his ball and go home pouting which is fine, because he, like his talent, and the metaphorical ball, is a dime a dozen. Industry creatives are willing to take a chance on the next Harmon minus the hurt locker self-detonating bomb bullshit that comes with a person like him. He will never have to fear his self determination because he always wants to be the last person picked since he is most comfortable living down to expectations than living up to them. Like a rural, desolate town, without any life or charm, on the landscape of the comedic interstate, you too will drive right past Harmontown without looking back in the rearview mirror, exactly where this documentary belongs.
2 out of 4