Much-loved comedian Carl Barron caused quite the to-do in July last year when he took the stage in Sydney, as audience members soon became extras in the comedian’s first feature film, Manny Lewis, co-written and directed by Anthony Mir. Not all reacted too kindly to having to pay to be an extra, but regardless, if the show itself was anything to go by, those who had stayed may have been heartened by the prospect of Barron’s venture onto the silver screen. However, while what on stage might seem amusing, the inspiration behind the material is often not as rosy, and it is this behind-the-scenes guise that drives Manny Lewis.
Playing a morose version of his real self, Barron takes on the titular role of Manny, a stand-up comedian at the top of his game professionally, but lagging badly behind privately. He is a good bloke who likes to make people happy, and whose humour on stage comes from a place of brutal honesty. But while he is comfortable with the distance the stage provides between his audience and himself, a closer connection with a special someone eludes him.
Lewis’s comedy often hits very close to the bone, speaking of home truths offhand, seemingly dismissing these sad realities through a blasé demeanour. He sets the tone with his opening routine, which has him talking about suicide and pretending to be dead when home alone. The crowd laughs. But accompany these lines with shots of a downcast Lewis and a melancholic piano soundtrack, and this sounds much more like a meeting with a counsellor than a comedy routine. Indeed, Lewis does seem to treat the stage like a confessional in the absence of any friends to talk to about what troubles him most, bar his manager (Damien Garvey).
Interestingly, Barron’s debut feature comes out at roughly the same time as fellow comedian Chris Rock’s Top Five, also about a comedian but one who is trying to make it a serious actor. That film benefits from Chris Rock’s already established flair for storytelling. The same can’t be said for the Barron and Mir, who have managed to drain most of the comedy from this nervously plotted – and acted – tale of romance. Putting comedy to one side, this is, in fact, a surprisingly personal affair that is even more so a study of depression and the lasting impact of childhood trauma – certainly not a showcase for Barron’s typically coarse brand of humour.
It is brave of him to tackle a subject that you might not associate with such a well-known and confident performer. But ultimately, Manny Lewis treads a very linear path. To make the point that tragedy and comedy go hand in hand is all well and good; but in this case, clichéd and signposted plotting largely undercuts the inroads made. Barron’s is a type of humour that doesn’t quite lend itself to the kind of wordplay that would make this an engaging 90 minutes.
That said, his developing relationship with Leeanna Walsman’s equally shy Maria is heartwarming, and they really are nice people, even if they are somewhat one-dimensional. Perhaps then, this might have made a nice change in pace for an episode of ABC’s It’s a Date, but as a film, it struggles to hold the course.
Manny Lewis is in Australian cinemas from March 12 through Studio Canal.