"Parks and Rec" nice guy Jim O'Heir goes to the dark side in the pitch black comedy-and-crime noir "Middle Man," a scathing takedown of the often cursed pursuit of fame and fortune, written and directed by Ned Crowley.
O'Heir plays Lenny, a straitlaced CPA who hits the road with his inheritance from his deceased mother — a '53 Oldsmobile — with dreams of achieving stardom as a standup comedian in Las Vegas. But with one fateful misjudgment, he picks up a stringy-haired hitchhiker named Hitch (Andrew J. West, certainly committed to the role), which leads to Lenny's big break and his breakdown.
Hitch happens to be a talent manager, a side hustle to his main gig of robbery and murder. Soon, Lenny's carefully rehearsed act is out, and he finds himself taking the stage in a blood spattered-shirt and shakily describing the heinous acts he's committed under Hitch's management. His deadpan description of the depraved acts mixed with his nerdy demeanor turns out to be comedy gold because no one believes him. The crowd loves it — one could even say he "slays."
The film has a weird timelessness — is it the '60s, or present day? A grayish desaturated palette adds to the sense of unreality, but lacks visual dynamism. Crowley relies far more on extreme violence than actual jokes, and after all the gruesome gore, salacious splatter and deadpan dehumanization, the point of it all becomes lost in the mess of severed limbs and pools of blood. It commits the worst comedy crime of all — there's no punchline.
Running time: 1 hour, 44 minutes
Playing: Laemmle Music Hall, Beverly Hills; AMC Universal Citywalk; AMC Burbank