Trying to think of a way to review Patton Oswalt: Finest Hour, a film documenting the comedian's uproarious routine from his 2011 tour, the fact that there's little to talk about other than Oswalt and his material reminds me that the stand-up comedian puts him/herself into a much more naked and vulnerable situation than most other performers. I've long been convinced that successfully funny narrative films are more difficult to pull off than dramas; there are so many fewer safety nets and so much more subjectivity involved, and there are no saving graces or ways of compensating left if you can't make 'em laugh. But at least in a film, you have the chance to do retakes and rewrites and employ editing to get your laughs. And even a singer usually has at least one instrumental layer of diversion left to them if the voice fails or the lyrics get forgotten. But not a stand-up comedian: that's high-pressure, high-wire, sink-or-swim territory where flops are most unequivocal and will be judged accordingly.
I point all that out to reinforce just how impressive Patton Oswalt is as he regales us throughout Finest Hour: just a man, a microphone, and some lights might seem a proposition so simple as to not be worth remarking upon, but it's incredibly bold, and the apparent effortlessness with which he shoulders the burden of the spotlight and singlehandedly turns a spare hour of an audience's life into a dizzyingly good time is, upon consideration, a dazzling feat. Oswalt's jokes, as his fans already know, express a uniquely manic, self-deprecating twist on the put-upon variety of observational humor; his timing, as exemplified here, is precise but seems relaxed, and his clearly very well-honed material is delivered freshly, as if he's inventing it on the spot. It's just great fun to watch, casual yet riveting; Oswalt, with his squat, rotund physique and ever-so-slightly unhinged vocal mannerisms (from a quieter street somewhere in the vicinity of Pee-Wee Herman's neighborhood), puts us at tremendous ease while never letting our attention escape or allowing our laughter to let up.
Some of the absurdities and embarrassments of life to which Oswalt turns his wouldn't-you-know-it, grudgingly accepting comedic eye in this special, shot at the Moore Theatre here in my very own burg of Seattle last year for broadcast on Comedy Central, are: being unsuccessfully auditioned as the stereotypical gay best friend in a romantic comedy; the banality of romantic comedies in general; sweatpants; the inadvisability of wanting what one reads in the Bible to become the actual reality of life; the difficulties of being overweight and teaching your toddler to dance; the relatively unspectacular quality of the trials recounted at Weight Watchers meetings in relation to the bad-ass ones heard wherever recovering drug and alcohol addicts meet for reminiscing and mutual support; the Spam Museum outside of Minneapolis, to which Oswalt aspires one day to be the first sincere, non-"hipster douchebag" visitor; and the overratedness of being a New Yorker. The way the show is shot and edited is par for the course, with Oswalt from a centered medium-long-shot view, Oswalt from the left, Oswalt from the right, slow zooms in from each side, Oswalt from closer/lower angles, and the obligatory audience-reaction shots (which I personally find tiresome and which are in this case utterly superfluous, though they don't interfere with our own laughs). There are probably more creative ways one could shoot and edit stand-up performances, but this familiar approach works just fine, offering enough variation in what we're looking at to placate the restless without doing anything that detracts from the performance itself. (This is probably the place to mention that Oswalt himself refers to the performance throughout as an "album," not a DVD, and although being able to see him helps amplify a couple of jokes, you could do just about as well listening to Finest Hour on CD as watching it.)
There is no possible way to convey the hilarious, often ludicrously unexpected extremes to which Oswalt takes his anecdotes and observations without making an ill-advised attempt to repeat them, thereby embarrassing myself and selling the very talented Oswalt far short. You'll have to see it for yourself to really appreciate the gem of an act he's polished for our pleasure, and his brilliant aptitude for delivering it. All I can really say about it is that the next time you're in need of a really good, deep laugh, Finest Hour is about as close to a sure thing as you're likely to come across.
The 1.78:1 anamorphic transfer is absolutely is entirely up to any current standard of clarity and solidity of image for broadcast stand-up specials; it's nothing special visually, but the presentation on disc is flawless, with skin tones and colors looking natural and vivid and the variegations in the stage-lighting setup well preserved.
The disc has both Dolby Digital 2.0 stereo and Dolby Digital 5.1 surround tracks available. Either is perfectly resonant, rich, and full -- more than adequate to the show's well-recorded sound. The choice depends entirely upon the size of your space and the span of your sound system, but either one works splendidly.
An encore in which Oswalt expands on his beloved "KFC bit"; a very funny pre-show interview with the comedian, cleverly edited to goose those of his fans captured in their own pre-show lobby interviews; and an even funnier "Stuff that Patton Mentions" clip that literally, hilariously offers up a montage of the cultural debris and other familiar (and some perhaps not so familiar) detritus of modern life that Oswalt has had occasion to reference in his act. (That last is, of course, only to be watched after you've taken in the performance.)
Patton Oswalt: Finest Hour showcases a wry but energetic comedic talent at the top of its form. Patton Oswalt has a storytelling gift and a crack sense of timing, both captured here with all pistons firing, that gets laughs with apparently total ease and then makes them multiply like bunny rabbits, and he does it all in a sharp but self-deprecating, frazzled manner that allows his mordant, often outlandish take on whatever matter is at hand to retain all its bite without breaking the skin. It's "just" a stand-up special, and Oswalt doesn't have a pretentious bone in his body, but this is stand-up comedy rendered completely convincing as an art form, and Oswalt as one of its contemporary masters. If he were to hang up his hat tomorrow (god forbid), Finest Hour alone would be enough to secure him a permanent place in the stand-up pantheon. Highly Recommended.