Friday, September 30, 2011
MOVIE REVIEW: Conan O'Brien Can't Stop
There's a moment near the beginning of Conan O'Brien Can't Stop when director Rodman Flender (a college buddy of Conan's) asks Conan - recently deposed as host of The Tonight Show - if he's ever thought about what would happen if he just stopped for a little while.
Conan, behind the wheel of his car, literally in motion as he answers, replies: "What does that even mean?"
In that one moment, the span of 30 seconds, you learn almost all you need to know about Conan O'Brien.
Almost, but not quite.
Conan O'Brien Can't Stop is a documentary of frantic, almost exasperating energy. It reveals Conan O'Brien as the manic, accidental genius true believers have always seen him to be, but more than that, it reveals him to be someone who almost literally hungers for performance, for making people laugh, for getting that rush of being a delivery system for delight.
The film begins in the days after Conan has left the tonight show. He's angry, he says, sometimes more than he can believe, but he's already planning something new: The Legally Prohibited from Being Funny on Television Tour, a cross-country journey of music, comedy and madness that will bring Team CoCo directly to the people who fought for Conan's place as host of The Tonight Show.
What follows is a whirlwind of a film that follows Conan through the highs and lows of the tour. At times he is so bursting with energy that even backup dancers half his age don't seem to be able to keep up. Other times he's so broken down from the grind of meeting and greeting and taking photos with fans and supporters that he seems ready to collapse. Maybe he is, but he keeps going anyway. Even on his days off he's still performing, doing secret shows with Jack White and performing in the talent show at his Harvard class reunion.
Why? Because it's what he does. Flender isn't out to make a film that answers the question of why Conan doesn't just take his monetary settlement from NBC and live out his days as a ginger-bearded couch potato, or why he can't simply wait six months to go back to what he was doing before on another channel. It's not about those questions. It's about a man who lives for the work he's doing.
One question the film does answer, particularly for people who have never understood the Team CoCo phenomenon, is the question of why Conan O'Brien is a star. The answer is because he never seems to feel entitled to his status, or complacent in his role as a professional goofball. He's always trying to make it better, funnier, closer to perfect. Even in moments of sheer exhaustion (and in this film, there are many), he's still pushing for more connection with his fans, better performances and bigger laughs.
But he's also very human beneath the comic varnish. The deep, roaring belly laughs that come with Conan O'Brien Can't Stop are accompanied by another side of the man, one that's frustrated, driven and even a little vulnerable. He reveals how he uses humor to express displeasure and mask discomfort, how little patience he has for being railroaded by producers and show organizers, and at times, even just how tired he gets.
But it all only adds to his allure. Just as Flender isn't interested in making a flashy documentary that seeks to answer the big questions about the motivations of a TV comedian, Conan isn't out to portray himself as an innocent lamb butchered by the network TV system. He's at work, and it's work he loves in spite of its pitfalls. Flender's film is the story of a man who's still going to work, and who never stops feeling the rush of that work. That's why Conan O'Brien can't stop.