To Be Young, Gifted, White, Gay and Disabled in Harlem
Keeping It Real hardly breaks new ground in its methods, and there are moments when this documentary and its subject, stand-up comedian Greg Walloch, fall flat. However, and largely because of Mr. Walloch himself, the film does point to more than mere stage routines captured in front of live audiences, and in this lies its saving grace.
Much of our present efforts at comedy come from painful Robin Williams saccharine or else Saturday Night Live-graduate vanity shows, self-indulgence, or dumb and offensive offerings like the popular gross-out, frat-crowd species. Little wonder that, although foreign markets furnish a large share of U.S. film profits, our recent comedies are failures overseas compared with, for example, the international embrace of intelligent exports like Some Like It Hot or A Night at the Opera.
The same holds for stand-up "concert films." Despite shots of audiences doubled over, supposedly in gut-busting laughter, the endless "Richard Pryor Live/Back/Here and Now" series is repetitive and only sporadically funny. Perhaps, in fact, the best "stand-up" stuff was not documentary at all, but Dustin Hoffman's routines in Fosse's Lenny.
The latter was hilarious, and heartbreaking, precisely because the racial/scatological humor was played out against a context of real life, for -- U.S. audience reaction to the contrary -- elsewhere street language, racist terms and sex are not howlingly funny on mere gratuitous mention.
Keeping It Real is appropriately subtitled The Adventures of Greg Walloch, since it is he who holds things together and -- often unintentionally, one suspects -- lends a deeper voice to comedy. Though the film is documentary, for once a director, Eli Kabillio, wisely keeps interviews short and unobtrusive, to focus on a few of Greg's live shows and allow the twenty-something-year-old comic to voice his own hopes, opinions and reactions, often as he is being driven about or else in his own uptown apartment.
Walloch sees himself as "at the base of it a storyteller." It is impossible to tell if his stories are true -- and of those that are, how much is also embellishment -- both when he is onstage before a live audience, and "offstage" with the camera (and movie patrons) as audience. It makes no difference in the end, as the film dexterously shifts between, say, a Dixon Place routine and another at Joe's Pub/The Public Theater or Gotham Comedy Club, often continuing the same story line but sometimes simply redoing, retelling the entirety of one piece. The different vantage points lend perspective and deepen meaning.
Less successful are the several more cinematic insertions, as where Greg plays himself as a waiter, as a gay advertising for and having sex with a voluptuous blonde, or endures an obnoxious taxi driver or silly female brunch companion whose questions are insultingly stupid.
Such ill-advised interruptions are few, and do not work, since they are false and do not contribute to a picture of Greg, for it is finally he and not his comic vision that is the center of this film.
Though most of his humor reverts to his homosexuality and cerebral palsy -- relatively mild, if such a cruel sounding term may be used --the young man insists that those aspects of his life are not his problems but others'. People's reactions define them, not him, while the person that he is, is not at all unhappy and does not dream of being anyone different. Despite expectation, only occasionally does his humor become tasteless and offensive.
His voice lowered and wistful, he draws a lesson from these stories, and what emerges is an admonition to love, if only a moment, and to accept each person for what that individual truly is.
In general, cinema must have its merits and demerits, its advantages and drawbacks. With a very few happy exceptions -- the opening Globe sequence in Olivier's Henry V, some parts of Monterey Pop -- film is "other" and cannot convey the excitement of in-the-flesh performance nor that electricity between successful performer and audience. Catching Mr. Walloch at some comedy club, seeing/hearing him ad-lib (like his line on following a straight comedian who has ridiculed gay hairdressers) -- that would be an altogether different experience. Keeping It Real is earnest but so laid-back, as film, that it's finally pedestrian; its virtue lies in its subject (not "theme"), Greg Walloch, and his personal dignity and insistence on being himself.
(Released by Avatar Films; not rated by MPAA.)