‘AFTER LIFE’ (NETFLIX)
Appreciating the work of Ricky Gervais has always hinged on your taste, and even then, some of his efforts over the years seem to have lost him fans. His problem is that he’s always pushing the boundaries of good taste in ways that some people find mean-spirited, focusing his comedy on concepts that certain segments of the audience don’t think should be fodder for humor. But I think that’s his strength, as well.
Of course, Gervais would be the one to come up with this bereavement comedy, in which he plays Tony, stuck in depression following the death of his wife. Spending most of his days rewatching videos that his wife made giving him instructions on how to move past her death, Tony is wallowing in his loss, as any person would. The world wants to help him recover from his loss, but he doesn’t feel like being happy, and so he not only wears his misery on his sleeve, but he’s decided to no longer waste time sparing people’s feelings and registers his opinions in a direct and caustic way. When he’s not morosely watching the videos, he’s working for a small-town newspaper, which would normally be good, but it’s unclear whether the world can endure his attitude about it.
But Gervais is simultaneously soppy in all his work, and swelling emotion typically follows the nastiness. As Tony ravages everything around him, he finds himself surrounded by people who challenge his new approach, and putting him in the position of making dark decisions in the name of kindness and unexpectedly embracing new connections.
“After Life” has it both ways, and it’s one of the best examples of Gervais pulling it off skillfully. Tony’s barbs taking down the world are hilarious and cathartic, while the new bonds he builds are sweet and sometimes heart-breaking. It’s dark comedy that acknowledges and appreciates all the horrible things in life, but refuses to be defeated by them. Life-affirming and appropriately negative at the same time, “After Life” is a rare comedy that should appeal to those who no longer want to play the game, but can’t seem to give it up.
‘BATHTUBS OVER BROADWAY’ (APPLE, GOOGLE PLAY, NETFLIX, VUDU, YOUTUBE)
Whenever I see or read anything about record collecting, it tends to focus on the quirkiness of the collector and the strangeness of what they collect, and then takes it no further. “Bathtubs Over Broadway” busts that pattern by getting to the heart of the collecting and then, once it does, taking it so much further that someone who doesn’t collect records is actually drawn into the activity in an emotional way that a profoundly sweet sort of understanding transpires.
Focusing on longtime David Letterman writer Steve Young, the film traces how some records he picked up for a gag on “The Letterman Show” grew into the focus of his life’s work. Sometimes known as industrial musicals, the records Young finds are original cast recordings of full-blown, professionally-realized stage shows commissioned by companies like General Electric and Dupont, and performed typically for employees, often at special company gatherings. The records themselves were only ever meant for internal use, never for public consumption.
If the Broadway-style paeans to plumbing fixtures, sterile hospital sheets and gasoline are absurd and comical, the story behind how these productions were made and who was involved is absolutely fascinating. Young’s journey becomes a quest to uncover the stories behind the records, uncovering a secret world of professional side gigs, where talented and respected composers, musicians, and performers were able to create commercial work for great pay.
But it’s not just about telling the history of the productions, it’s also about getting to know the people involved, along with Young, and it’s this part of the journey that is particularly sweet. It also reveals one of the great allures of collecting products of the absurd — the stories of the people behind the strange things. This is especially the case with records, where sometimes what you find out about the making of the record is more fascinating than the record itself. Young humanizes that interest by putting himself out there, but he also lends dignity to the people and circumstances he uncovers.
Originally published at https://www.berkshireeagle.com on September 27, 2019.