There's a dull but constant pain in between my right temple and ear, from the vein that indicates anger and stress and that ilk, like being stuck in traffic or having an uncomfortable conversation. It's about four hours after I've finished Call Me Lucky now, and it's still there. I hope it doesn't go away any time soon.
Call Me Lucky is a documentary about Barry Crimmins, an explosive stand-up comic in the 70's and 80's who hatched a generation of comedians out of Boston even though you probably haven't heard of him. He was loud and a substance abuser and political and mad – very mad. The first big turn the movie throws is when we find out that Barry Crimmins isn't dead. Between the way the intro plays out and our knowledge of how these stories tend to go, it feels like a post-mortem until he's shown happily in Upstate N.Y.
Immediately Crimmins feels out of place. Tall and brutish, sporting a Gene Shalit afro and mustache combo sans glasses, at first look one would think he's a gimmick act, or at least a clown. But when he opens his mouth, he spits fire like a Roadster running on rotgut and Thomas Paine. Adding to the nervous energy is the fact that, while really funny, somewhere along the way Crimmins stopped caring about the funny-to-poignant ratio, using jokes more to lure people in before reigning down hell. There's a dangerous feeling knowing this guy doesn't care about cutting tension with a one-liner like most comedians are compelled to do. Comparisons to Bill Hicks or Lenny Bruce are there to be made in terms of temperament, government criticism and abrasiveness, although the best description comes from one of the interviews: “He's like Noam Chomsky and Bluto.”
Barry Crimmins goes from stand-up to club owner through the 80's, fostering a bevy of comics like Marc Maron and the film's director Bobcat Goldthwait, while actively performing.
Then about halfway in, Call Me Lucky switches gears. This will be what might turn off those that came just for the laughs, but it's an emotionally rewarding trip for those willing to tackle sensitive topics. Like some biographies, Call Me Lucky explores its subject's dark inner pain. Unlike others, though, Call Me Lucky isn't afraid to spend the rest of the movie talking about it. There are breadcrumbs left by Goldthwait for what's to come, enough to make for one tense room once all is revealed. Yes, I'm tip-toeing here. Skipping ahead, Crimmins becomes a vocal activist, testifying in front of Congress and just really being an amazing human being, especially given what he's been through.
The only problem I see is that after watching, if you're like me, everything you go to say or post or think may feel frivolous in the wake of the positive substantial change Crimmins has affected and continues to affect. I've been reflecting on how trivial my material was the handful of times I've attempted stand-up (between this and the now-classic Tig Notaro set discussing her newfound cancer, please retire any and all dick jokes in the provided receptacle). I had planned to write another article earlier tonight, and now I can't stop thinking about how insignificantly it'll benefit the world. Ironically, this apathy is wholly against the point of the movie.
I suppose I should talk about the documentary on the production side. One of the nicest things you can say to an editor is that you didn't notice their work, and here I was totally engrossed and swept up in the movie. Props to Bobcat Goldthwait and his editor Jeff Striker for that. Structurally deft, Call Me Lucky keeps a steady pace and is always interesting without the need for distracting graphics, and its few spots of animation were used well. With a figure as politically motivated as Crimmins, Goldthwait also does an impressive job of letting Crimmins preach while not letting the movie itself be preachy.
Call Me Lucky is one of the best movies of the year and one of the best documentaries I've seen. It's a funny but more importantly stirring portrait of a sharp-witted flamethrower that we should all be happy is out there spewing hot napalm. It's also a rare reminder that one person can make a difference. Perhaps Call Me Lucky was an uncomfortable conversation, as the pain between my temple and ear indicates. We could use more uncomfortable conversations.