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Film Threat // Unrated
List Price: $19.99 [Buy now and save at Amazon]

Review by Adam Tyner | posted April 27, 2004 | E-mail the Author
I live in Simpsonville, South Carolina, a fairly tiny town without much of note aside from its proximity to Greenville, which itself is only remarkable for being equidistant to Atlanta and Charlotte. There's a stand-up comedy joint a couple miles down the road that occasionally hosts open mic nights, attracting the grade of talent you'd expect from...well, a stand-up comedy joint in Simpsonville, South Carolina. With each month that passed, the open mic audience got progressively smaller and the comics got progressively worse. The only thing tougher than enduring many of these nervous, shaky, sweaty people fumbling through their routines is suffering through their bafflingly unfunny material...the type of gags that probably sounded pretty funny in the shower that morning, but not so much when having to rattle them off in front of a microphone and a crowd of eight. There were a few talented people who would consistently deliver, but most of the folks who waddled into open mic night were soul-crushingly bad. The documentary Comedian, released on DVD around this time last year, followed Jerry Seinfeld on tour, featuring a smattering of appearances by some of the biggest names in the business. On the other end of the spectrum is Hacks, which takes a look at the questionable grade of comedian that litters small town open mic nights.

Hacks is a faux-documentary focusing on a group of comics managed by the fledgling Diamond and Hutz agency, their latest venture after a string of inventive failures. As the title kinda subtly suggests, their roster isn't the most immensely talented lot, and they're all piled together when Diamond and Hutz decide to showcase their talent, using the word loosely, at an upstate New York comedy festival. Skully, a wheelchair-bound observational comic, barks out a Mad Libs-style routine. "What's with __noun__?" Otis, a black albino, is cut from the Def Comedy Jam cloth, spouting off an onslaught of almost surreally obscene one-liners. Dhrupick is an alternative comic, the type to read a joke book in front of a hopelessly confused crowd. No, he doesn't read it aloud...just reads it. Slappy is a middle-aged comedienne eager to do whatever's necessary to grab a spot on-stage, offering various orifaces for stage time and not in the preferred order, even though the audience is violently unreceptive whenever she steps in front of the mic. She receives some direction from her husband in the audience, who flashes messages like "More Pussy" when her set doesn't meet the minimum daily requirement of pussy and "Easter" when she's starting to drag. Slappy also takes to a waiter that tags along for the ride when he impresses Diamond and Hutz with jokes probably lifted from the flipside of a pack of Laffy Taffy. Roachy trots out an assortment of stale impressions and sweats nervously when he learns underage kids will probably be in attendance at the impending festival. To get the comics in shape, Diamond and Hutz turn to Arty Hittle (Jim Gaffigan) of the U.S. Comedy Corps to hone their craft, and when the festival does eventually roll around, it's not what anyone expected.

Hacks snagged a bunch of laurels during its successful festival run and deservedly so. It's a wickedly funny movie, eclipsing anything else I've seen in many months. Although I admittedly didn't sit in front of my TV with a stopwatch and a pad-'n-paper to get a definitive average, the first half of the movie probably left me laughing around every 45 seconds. I'm the type of grating person that rarely audibly laughs when watching a movie, and I chalk it up as a win if a flick gets me going five or six times in the space of an hour and a half. A few dozen times in forty-five minutes, several almost terrifying howls...that is rare. The mockumentary structure is just a perfect fit. Most mainstream comedies follow something loosely resembling a plot and waste time placing their characters in particular situations, all in the hope that the eventual punchline will be worth the extended setup. Hacks doesn't really have to bother with moving from Point A to Point B so linearly, allowing it to be much more efficient. Most of the first half of the movie can be slapped with one of two labels. A lot of the performers are interviewed individually and manage to cram in at least one laugh in those bite-sized chunks, or if there is a premise to a segment, it's not overly complex and can be tossed together quickly enough to move almost immediately to the funny part. If a bit doesn't work for a particular viewer, it'll be over in a minute and a half at most. The signal-to-noise ratio is extremely high, and with the speed and frequency Hacks lobs out its jokes, that's a lot of comedy. Still, I didn't think the last half hour, around the time of the opening set at their first festival, worked nearly as well as the 45 minutes that came before it. Some viewers also might have a rough time suffering through the more annoying comedians. Glenn Rockowitz must bear an intense hatred for observational comics since those two characters in particular are almost unbearable to sit through, which is, of course, by design. The cast is also excellent, particularly Jim Gaffigan, one of my favorite comedians, in a brief role. Victor Varnado really steals the show, though. His character, a vulgar comedian who genuinely has no concept of when it might not be entirely appropriate to whip out his pussy-centric routine, gets at least one laugh almost every single time he's on-screen.

Hacks won over a bunch of film festivals, but it never got a shot to do the same to audiences theatrically. Although it's not tame enough to play to mall-faring moviegoers, I'd bet Hacks could've netted some decent box office, almost undoubtedly enough to push it into the black. Although even a limited theatrical run doesn't seem to be in the wings, Film Threat has given it an impressive release on DVD, enhanced for widescreen displays and sporting a monstrous pile of extras.

Video: The combination of digital video, its black-and-white appearance, and whatever processing might've been tossed on in post give Hacks a really distinctive look. I liked it -- it doesn't look quite like video and doesn't look quite like film. The DVD is presented in anamorphic widescreen at an oddball aspect ratio, something like 2.13:1, and it looks great. A little underlying video noise is present, but nothing major or particularly unexpected. The closest thing to any sort of real flaw comes in the form of a couple of briefly glimpsed purple squares, presumably digital video blips of some sort, but they only pop up twice and for such a short period of time that it's not worth giving 'em a second thought.

Audio: The Dolby Digital stereo soundtrack, encoded at a beefy 448Kbps, is great as well. As is typically the case with documentaries, real or not, dialogue is the emphasis, and it comes through cleanly and clearly. There isn't an extensive amount of music, but when it rears its head, the songs roar from the main speakers, accompanied by a pretty hefty low-frequency thump. For anyone keeping track, there are no dubs, subtitles, or closed captions.

Supplements: The extras on the DVD kick off with eight minutes of "Private Time with Glenn Rockowitz", talking...errr...typing about the motivation behind the movie. It's brilliant, hysterical, and a few other glowing words I haven't pilfered from the thesaurus yet. A note from Rockowitz on the official site mentioned that there were going to be three commentaries. Only two made it to the presses, though. The first has, of course, the writer/director himself. Rockowitz has kind of a self-deprecating sense of humor about the quality of the commentary, but it's actually really well-done. He listened to a commentary he hated beforehand and avoided the usual pitfalls of a one-man track. A lot of them wind up careening off on pointless tangents, become a little too self-indulgent, or just stop dead for several minutes at a time. Rockowitz, who I should probably start referring as "Glenn" since it's shorter, delivers one that's almost perfect. He hardly stops to take a breath (although there is a pause for a pee break at one point) and covers most of the bases, all with a really dry sense of humor. The only complaint I could make, and being an online DVD reviewer, I'm obligated to make at least one, is that the emphasis is heavily on what happened throughout the course of production, leaving only a few cursory sentences on pre-production and post. I would've liked to have heard more about the writing process, raising a budget, the hassles and expense of assembling a movie once photography's wrapped, the festival circuit, getting set up with Film Threat... Although it looks like this is the only release of Hacks on DVD for the foreseeable future, Rockowitz mentions that he's compiling some additional extras onto a supplemental DVD, and maybe those sorts of tales will be covered there. The second track features three of the hacks, Angela Muto (Slappy), John Roach (Roachy), and Ken Forman (Ron). It's a very different commentary from Rockowitz's, spinning a few of the same stories, but it's much more freewheeling and not quite as...coherent. They're obviously having a good time, ragging on each other, talking about Roach making the fairly ill-advised choice of having gone down on a hooker in her mid-fifties, Perry Wolberg driving everyone nuts with his 400,000 "What about...?"s, attempting to mask a cold sore with way too much lipstick, and Glenn dipping down the age for the lecherous Roach flashback. I'm still floored that so many of these seemingly outlandish stories are actually grounded in reality.

With 62 hours of footage captured in total, a bunch of stuff obviously wound up on the cutting room floor, or I guess in the case of a digitally-produced flick, the Mac trashcan icon. Rockowitz unearthed forty minutes of excised material for this DVD, with the longer scenes introduced with a short title card. There are a few full deleted scenes, including parapalegic incest, the comics turning the clock back to the '50s, and an offscreen half-and-half (with, erm, the other half first), to rattle off a few. Jim Gaffigan also gets a big slab of screentime with footage snipped during his brief but apparently exceptionally memorable time on the set, and the rest of the footage is a barrage of very quick improvised bits. It's all hit or miss, but there are enough "hits" to make it worth wading through. I mean, how often do you get a chance to watch a bone break? Like the movie, it's all in anamorphic widescreen. It closes with a URL on the Hacks website to get another hour of material, but at least as of the writing of this review, that section isn't ready for prime-time.

"How to Break into Stand-Up Comedy" has Jim Gaffigan back in character as Arty Hittle, offering helpful suggestions on how to break into the industry. Louder is funnier. Jump around a lot. It's set up like a grainy, battered educational film, runs a little over eight minutes, and is, of course, extremely funny. A behind-the-scenes montage stitches together four minutes of random on-set footage, and there's also a hysterical trailer in anamorphic widescreen that does a great job of duplicating the tone of the movie while sparingly using actual footage. The last of the videos is a three and a half minute segment from a local news show called 212 about a non-profit group Rockowitz works with, "The Best Medicine Group", which has comedians cheering up terminally ill patients. A cover art gallery cycles through what I guess was different pitches for the DVD packaging. There's a note preceding it stating that you have to whack the "Next Chapter" button on your remote to navigate the art, although it's actually all automatic. Rounding out the extras is a set of DVD credits.

The RSDL disc comes packaged in a transparent keepcase, and the liner notes include a brief sidebar by Glenn Rockowitz and a rant penned by Film Threat's Doug Brunell. The DVD sports a set of 4x3 menus which seem to take a really long time to navigate, and the movie has been divided into eighteen chapters.

Conclusion: Although I thought it kinda petered out in its last act, Hacks is an enormously entertaining flick and essential viewing for anyone who's ever suffered through shoddy stand-up comedy. It's netted a first-rate release on DVD as well, worth every cent of the slim asking price.

Related Links: The official Hacks site has a trailer, along with a few other Flash-oriented goodies. I'm too lazy to dig up more stuff on most of the comedians in the movie, but I'll toss out links to Victor Varnado and Jim Gaffigan.
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Highly Recommended

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