Written by: Joe Lollo
The Apatovian formula is simple: Pluck an up-and-coming comic from the small leagues, support them while they write their own darkly funny but authentically heartfelt semi-autobiographical comedy, then produce and/or direct the final format. This method has led to many successes, even without Apatow’s name, including Amy Schumer’s Trainwreck, Kumail Nanjiani’s The Big Sick, and Pete Davidson’s The King of Staten Island.
All of these works have one major theme in common: they’re all self-flagellating adult coming-of-age stories. Whether the young adult protagonists’ ultimate goal is romantic love or self-love, the rewards remain high. After all, it’s only their personal dignity at stake. The Opening Act, directed by Steve Byrne and primarily written by him and the star Jimmy O. Yang, doesn’t just follow this formula to a T but also breathes new life into it.
Will Chu (Yang) is an aspiring comic, who’s been doing open-mics in his small hometown of Steubenville, Ohio. He spent hours watching stand-up on TV with his immigrant father, knows the form, works on his bits, and has the instinct for playing off his appearance and persona — in his case, the fact that he’s a short, youthful-looking Asian guy with long hair and “the face of an impish angel.” Will even admits this to his audience, saying “I’m a very good-looking guy – if you’re into anime.”
Watching Will, we want him to succeed, because he’s a sweet dude and he wants it so much. He’s got an adoring girlfriend (Debby Ryan) and a day job working as a cubicle drone at a car insurance company. So when he gets the chance to emcee a four-night stretch of shows at the Pennsylvania Improv in Pittsburgh, it’s a potential big break, his first rung up the ladder to a career as a professional standup. He’s so bent on doing the shows that when his boss (Bill Burr) won’t give him a day off, he quits his job to take the gig.
Will has the desire and, we hope, the material. But does he have the attitude? The world of standup comedy is a fascinating and, in many ways, scurrilous place, and Will, arriving at the Improv (where he looks up to see his name on the marquee misspelled as “Will Chew”), is like a pledge at a frat party. He doesn’t smoke pot, do blow, or go to strip clubs. That makes him, at this club, the odd one out. Chris Jones (Alex Moffat), the other featured comic under the headliner, is a reckless womanizer, a party dude who wears his sleaze on his sleeve. Yet he’s also a total pro who’s comfortable in his skin on stage; he’s always killing. Even Chip (Neal Brennan), the gay club manager, has an in-your-face way about him (when he asks for Will’s cell-phone number, it turns out he’s flirting with him).
What everyone at the club has is a certain aggressive quality that’s wound into the DNA of standup, something Will doesn’t possess. Will, by contrast, is a polite dweeb who totes his joke notebook onstage with him like a security blanket. The first night, he gets through his set just fine, muffing only the easy part: his intro to the headliner, Billy G. (Cedric the Entertainer), a blustery former sitcom star who is one of Will’s idols. And Will has three more nights to make up for it. Unfortunately, Will doesn’t do anything of that sort; that night is only the beginning of his downward spiral into failure.
What’s gripping about Will’s failure isn’t just that he blows it, it’s that everything that’s wrong about his approach seems to emerge from what a nice guy he is. He has lunch at a diner with Billy G. and receives a perfect fusion of encouragement and worldly indifference. Cedric’s character tells him, “Even being a headliner don’t mean you’re a comic.” You’ve got to “find your own point-of-view, get your own voice, get selfish with that shit.” And he’s right. Good standup comics don’t just make you laugh — they electrify the air around them, drawing you into their own heads. And it’s that selfishness that Will lacks.
Yang gives a slyly appealing performance as a comic who may be too good a person to be a nightclub star. Having heard Billy’s advice, we expect Will to go on stage and get better, but instead, he falls down a rabbit hole of his own dithering. Right on stage. It’s very cringy, but, in its way, it’s an authentic scene that’s seldom encountered in movies about a standup.
Becoming a successful standup comic is an uphill battle, one that not everybody is cut out for, and The Opening Act is an honest and likable ode to those hard knocks. The film is full of comedians who speak in peppery patter — like Ken Jeong, as a friend of Will’s father who sets up the Improv gig for him, or the aforementioned Moffat, who incarnates a certain breed of prankish masculine club-stage bravado unlike his usage on SNL. Even Burr, who made people groan last week on SNL, becomes likable again in his brief role in this movie. The aggression of standup comedy is the fuel that’s needed to be funny, the fuel that lets a comedian survive. But seeing Will creep up to embracing the X factor of comedy is more than just funny — it’s moving. He’s learning, for the first time, how to play himself, and turning that into a hilarious state of grace.