It's thematically fitting that Henry Phillips' slight, prickling Punching Henry hits theaters just weeks after The Comedian, a De Niro exercise also about a difficult stand-up comic grinding through bad gigs and insulting meetings with TV suits — and accidentally starring in viral videos. The Comedian was about surviving, about continuing to matter. Punching Henry is about not making it, about not ever having mattered, its hero an every-schlemiel comic/folk-singer whose dickishness is actually more an awkward shyness. He's no king of comedy, but he perseveres, plinking out his curiously plaintive laugh-along songs in armpit nightclubs. Well observed and sometimes hilarious, Punching Henry is a better film than The Comedian, but many fewer people will see it. That might be its truest punch line.
It's done no favors by its workaday structure, however. Phillips (who wrote the script with director Gregori Viens) stars as himself, a 40-ish "journeyman” comedian spilling his backstory to a radio host played by Sarah Silverman. We learn he's in Los Angeles for an audition before a TV producer (J.K. Simmons); that the audition proves a disaster; that he's staying with a friend (Tig Notaro) who asks him to impregnate her wife.
That's all standard material for life-of-the-comedian entertainments, but Punching Henry tailors it expertly -- no scene is off-the-rack. In the many confrontations, Phillips is mostly looking for a way to defuse the tensions, to get everything back to normal, while also trying to determine whether or not he's being pushed around. When he does push back, it's at just the wrong moment. Punching Henry hews more closely to life as it's lived than many comedies bother to, so these dustups aren't catastrophic -- but they're damned funny.