The biggest surprise about Patrick Wang's sweepingly ambitious two-part, four-hour ensemble piece A Bread Factory is: The film, a sort of cinematic state-of-the-arts speech, is endlessly warm, playful and lovable, a sprawling and prankish hangout comedy with no clear precedent. Wang favors long, single-shot scenes capturing uninterrupted performance, his actors here often playing actors themselves or poets or tap dancers or singing real estate agents. Surveying the bustle around a small town's performing arts center, savoring the quirks and ambitions of the artists who populate it, A Bread Factory at times suggests, in its nimble comic portraiture within a sprawling milieu, in its spirited blend of naturalism and sketch comedy, the work of Richard Linklater, Christopher Guest, Robert Altman and Edward Yang.
The film is utterly singular, though, the kind of work that will become a point of comparison itself. Even its two halves proceed in different modes. A Bread Factory's first half, following the fight of the arts center's founders -- Dorothea (Tyne Daly) and Greta (Elisabeth Henry) -- to prevent the school board from withdrawing its funding, plays as a series of blackout scenes and sketches that rib and celebrate the lives of artists and the art-adjacent. An independent filmmaker (a wonderful Janeane Garofalo) harangues a Bread Factory audience for not having any Qs at a Q&A. Characters give monologues from plays they're in or works they're inventing on the spot. The second half proves somewhat darker but also more brazenly inventive in its scene craft. If Part One centered on the role of the arts in the lives of these characters and their community, Part Two finds their lives becoming art. Suddenly, song and dance numbers break out in parking lots and coffee shops.