Byrne has filled the cast with standup comedians and writers: Bill Burr, Ken Jeong, Tom Segura, Neal Brennan, Alex Moffat, Bonnie Hellman, Russell Peters, all of whom play cameo roles. You can tell that “The Opening Act” was written by someone who knows the field intimately, and much of it feels semi-autobiographical. When comics sit around and “talk shop,” they don’t revel in their triumphs. They commiserate on the moments they bombed, or dealt with horrible hecklers, or didn’t have enough material to fill their time slot, of hearing “crickets” after you tell a joke you thought was a real banger. Those hard times help a comedian to toughen up, and—most importantly—listen to the audience, figure out why a joke didn’t work. It’s not the audience’s fault. It’s yours. The joke may be funny but you haven’t worked out how to tell it yet. This is the process “The Opening Act” takes time to show. For example: Since Will is from Ohio, rowdy hecklers chant “OHIO SUCKS, OHIO SUCKS” every time he starts his set. Will is completely dominated by the hecklers. He has no way to combat them. Until he figures out a way. This is one of the film’s many payoffs.
The biggest payoff though is the development of the relationship between Will and Billy G. Billy G is an industry giant, with a popular television show and a best-selling book. Will has to work to overcome the horrible first impression he made. This is the unofficial “cliffhanger” of “The Opening Act,” and when those two finally come together, it practically justifies the film’s whole existence. Cedric the Entertainer works at such a high level as an actor, with such specificity, and yet he does it without “showing” how hard he’s working. Nothing is random: every gesture, every ring, every hat, every expression, how he eats his soup, how he walks, is carefully chosen, and yet nothing feels artificial. He’s a great character actor. When Yang looks at him with awe, hanging on every word, you feel the same way. These moments of accord are hard-won, and that’s part of the point too.
The ending credits of “The Opening Act” features clips of the comedians in the film—as themselves—talking about times they bombed in their careers. (One says, “I bombed for two years straight.”) To go back to Cedric the Entertainer’s quote at the top of this review, “The Opening Act” is committed to being real about its subject. And in that environment of tough knocks, hostile “crickets,” and mean-spirited hecklers, triumph really means something.
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