By Bill Wine
KYW Newsradio 1060
“Sometimes I’m so mad I can’t even breathe,” says Conan O’Brien in a candid moment in this new behind-the-scenes documentary.
Well, he may have trouble breathing during stressful times, but performing is downright therapeutic.
Which Conan O’Brien Can’t Stop can’t stop showing us. That’s moderately good news for movie viewers and even better news for the comic/host’s loyal fans.
The settlement that late-night talk show host Conan O’Brien got after his highly publicized 2010 exit-stage-left departure from NBC’s “Tonight Show” — his contentious departure seven months into his tenure as the host of the program to make room for Jay Leno’s return ended a relationship between the performer and the network that had lasted for 22 years — included the contractual stiipulation that O’Brien could not appear on television, radio, or the Internet for six months following his final broadcast.
So, prior to launching a new show on TBS later in the year, he hit the road for two months, embarking on a 32-city music-and-comedy stage show, aptly labeled the “Legally Prohibited From Being Funny on Television” tour.
Yes, it was a thank-you to O’Brien’s loyal fans, but let’s face it: it also gave him something to do while he fumed.
There’s really no plot here, just the path of the tour as it proceeds. But privileged moments abound as we look in on O’Brien and his staff, including sidekick Andy Richter, planning and critiquing and creating and rehearsing.
Then we get snatches of music and comedy performances in front of the live audiences in certain cities. And there’s plenty of visual name-dropping of such celebrities as Jim Carrey, Jon Stewart, Stephen Colbert, Jon Hamm, Eddie Vedder, and Jack White stop by.
Director Rodman Flender (Idle Hands, Let Them Eat Rock) gives us a glimpse — an extended snapshot — of a comedian with strong improvisational skills but who also exhibits a decided lack of grace in unguarded moments.
Oh, this is still unquestionably a vanity project, but at least the subject’s all-too-human side is on display as well.
In cutting down nearly 150 hours of cinema verité footage to less than an hour and a half, Flender does include plenty of unflattering moments to go along with O’Brien’s flashes of comedic brilliance and sincere expressions of appreciation: these involve O’Brien being angry or impatient or insulting or elitist or frustrated or fatigued or resentful or workaholic, or simply craving the sound of applause.
Not that there’s anything wrong with that. Or that. Or that.
But it’s a shame that Flender couldn’t carve out a way to get us deeper behind the scenes or at some vantage point in addition to the one through the keyhole.
Oh, he makes his primary case: the titular star is an Energizer Bunny. And whatever O’Brien’s motives for undertaking the tour, he certainly puts in the time and effort.
Naturally, fans of O’Brien will connect with this film in a way that more casual viewers will not. But it manages to stretch a bit beyond its own borders as well.
Because we associate O’Brien with comedy, we tend to forget that he is also a musician. And music and the performance of same is as big a component of this doc as comedy is.
Ultimately, though, even though Conan O’Brien Can’t Stop is on the reptitive side, it’s one of the few movies that may be a bit too short for its own good. With all of that footage in the vault, it’s a shame more psychological ground couldn’t have been covered.
So we’ll host 2½ stars out of 4 for an interesting, impressionistic backstage documentary. Conan O’Brien Can’t Stop is diverting rather than enchanting and pleasant rather than crucial, but — like the TV show the film’s star looks forward to returning to — it accomplishes its entertainment mission.