It takes a certain degree of fearlessness to be a stand-up comic, and a bit of arrogance as well, I think. This is something writer/director Steve Byrne knows well as he's climbed his way through the ranks of this cut-throat world to become one of the most respected members of the community. His experiences form the basis for his directorial debut, The Opening Act, a behind-the-scenes look at the stand-up scene thought the eyes of a young comic eager to make his mark. What with Byrne's background and the contributions of his many colleagues in this production, it comes as no surprise that this is a very funny movie, but more surprising is the sense of poignancy contained in this story of a young man who longs to have his day in the spotlight, not for himself, but for his father.
Right from the start, Byrne displays a penchant for economic, effective filmmaking as he covers 15 years in the life of Will Chu (Jimmy O'Brien) during which we see his mother pass away while he was young and his father and he watching stand-up comedy together in order the heal their pain. The bond they form doing this sustains them through many ups and downs and has an indelible effect on the young man. Hoping to achieve success as a stand-up himself, Chu appears at open mic nights at local clubs, honing his craft whenever he can manage to capture a few minutes on stage. Unfortunately, he's getting nowhere fast and is about ready to throw in the towel when a golden opportunity falls in his lap. A fellow comic (Ken Jeong) puts in a good word with a club manager who's looking for a host for his club show, the headliner being comedy legend Billy G (Cedric the Entertainer). Realizing he could get his foot in the door via this gig, Chu jumps at the chance.
Throwing this novice into the big leagues is a perfect comedic premise that Byrne plays for all its worth. Poor Chu ends up being the hapless wingman for his obnoxious cohort, Chris (Alex Moffat), who revels in putting the poor kid is awkward situations. Our hero's efforts to get advice from the off-putting Billy G provides one effective cringeworthy moment after another and an impromptu date with a drunk patron (Iliza Shlesinger) that goes horribly off the rails is one of the funniest bits I've seen this year.
Yet once we cut through the jokes, Byrne's focus on Chu's struggles on stage prove just as engaging. Constant heckling as well as deserved criticism from the club's manager (Neal Brennan) all take their toll on the young man and as we see him struggle to find his footing, we can't help but pull for him. It's obvious his acceptance is much more than simply self-validation but an effort to give thanks to his father for introducing him to a world that would become his passion.
Like the laughs, the sentiments do not come cheap here. Byrne and O'Brien earn the viewer's poignant response as Chu's path to salvation is not only hard-fought but sincerely earned. To be sure, Act does an admirable job showing us the ins-and-outs of the club scene and the hard work necessary to succeed in it. However, by concentrating on what motivates these performers to lay themselves bare as they do, the movie proves to be something more than just a one-note entertainment. Rather, it's an examination of one man's efforts to become worthy of the gift his father bestowed upon him.
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