A version of this review of Conan O’Brien Can’t Stop was originally published on the now-defunct movie blog Cinematical on March 17, 2011, covering from the 2011 SXSW Film Festival.
Happy St. Patrick’s Day. Fittingly, here is a review of a film about a guy of Irish descent directed by the guy who directed Leprechaun 2.
One of the highlights of the SXSW film festival is seeing a sold-out comedy at the Paramount Theater. Twelve-hundred people laughing together is just a wonderful thing. Even better, for me, though, is seeing so many people in one room together for a documentary, as was the case for Conan O’Brien Can’t Stop. It’s one of a few docs playing twice in such a big room this week, and (nothing against the also-great The Interrupters and Senna) surely it’s the most popular of the three.
Part of the reason for that popularity is obviously Conan O’Brien‘s notoriety, and the promise of laughs is certainly a factor, as well. If I had to complain about anything, and it’s somewhat appropriate with this film to be bitchy, it is actually too funny for a crowd that big. From the opening, in which the talk show host gives a surprising celebrity sighting to a star-homes tour bus, the audience could not quiet down. It’s just one hilarious bit after another, and I missed many of those bits. So, I can’t wait to see the doc again to fill in the gaps. Also, it’s just plain worthy of multiple viewings.
The focus is on O’Brien’s 2010 “Legally Prohibited from Being Funny on Television” tour, which he did as a result of and response to his Tonight Show resignation following Jay Leno’s renege-ation (everyone’s familiar with the story, right?). From inception to rehearsals all the way to the final show in Atlanta, the talk show host made up for his getting screwed by ending up the subject of one of the best tour docs in decades.
Directed by Rodman Flender, who in addition to the Leprechaun sequel also helmed the 2004 music doc Let Them Eat Rock (which I think kind of features O’Brien when the band performs on his show), Conan O’Brien Can’t Stop is a primarily verite work that presents a candid behind-the-scenes look into the post-NBC months of the understandably angry personality.
Many people will — if none have done so already — refer to Conan O’Brien Can’t Stop as this year’s Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work, and there are plenty of similarities. We get to see another comedian on the road, talking about the disappointments of his career and exposing a side and depth of character we haven’t seen from him up to now. The best thing, story-wise, in Conan O’Brien Can’t Stop is how he goes from being so needy of notability and recognition at first, such as in that opening scene, to expressing great annoyance with fans who demand too much of him. In a way, it’s like the anti-Justin Bieber: Never Say Never.
Of course, the Bieber doc, another rare nonfiction film that can easily sell out a large movie house like the Paramount, might have simply shielded the viewer from witnessing any negativity on the part of the pop star’s relationship to autograph hounds and such. Perhaps he bitches about having to meet and take photos with his backup dancers’ family and friends? Maybe he also swears and throws objects at his staff when he’s frustrated?
Then again, some of Conan O’Brien Can’t Stop almost seems unrealistically ingenuous, as if he’s either playing up his cantankerous behavior and biting insults for the sake of Flender’s camera or he’s simply just kidding around regardless of being filmed. There are only a few moments in which it truly comes across that he’s being mean-spirited and his words are met with discomfort rather than laughs — on screen, that is; all these bits are met with laughs from the film’s viewer.
Maybe it’s that I didn’t hear enough of what O’Brien actually says, over the roar of the audience. Or, maybe it’s that, for example, Jack McBrayer, who gets a hilarious heap of derogation from his old boss backstage, appears to be in on a gag rather than truly functioning as the Donovan to O’Brien’s Bob Dylan (other cameos include Jon Hamm and Jennifer Westfeldt, Jim Carrey, Eddie Vedder, and Megan Mullally and Nick Offerman). But Conan O’Brien Can’t Stop isn’t likely more prank than frank, though occasionally it does feel like a better version of I’m Still Here.
Conan O’Brien Can’t Stop doesn’t exactly try for substantiality the way the Joaquin Phoenix movie attempted and failed to do, and it’s not entirely significant beyond being enormously entertaining, yet it shows us a valuable story that is (for the most part, I hope) as objective and inspiring a look at celebrity and the genuine pros and cons of fame and performance as we’ve ever seen. Conan O’Brien Can’t Stop — and neither will you be able to stop laughing during, nor thinking about, this winning documentary.