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Film Review: 'All Joking Aside'

by Trevor Wells 11 months ago in review · updated 4 months ago

An earnest atmosphere and performances make up for this stand-up dramedy's sluggish start.

Charlene "Charlie" Murray (Raylene Harewood) has always dreamed of becoming a stand-up comedian. But her first open mic night is marred by a rowdy patron, who wrecks Charlie's already meager confidence bad enough to send her running off-stage. What Charlie doesn't learn until later from club owner Dennis (Richard Lett) is that her heckler was none other than Bob Carpenter (Brian Markinson), a formerly popular stand-up comic before an onstage meltdown sent him falling off the map. Impressed by Bob's abilities, Charlie sets out to take him on as her mentor.

Bob is completely resistant at first, but after some determined prodding from Charlie, he agrees to show her the ropes of the comedic world. The process is a hard one for Charlie, who juggles Bob's teachings on top of work, family issues, and a health scare. But over the course of their lessons, the prickly ex-comedy star begins to warm up to the young newcomer as they open up to each other about their struggles--and their shared passion for making people laugh.

After recently checking out a Lifetime movie Raylene Harewood was in last year, it only makes sense that I'd follow it up with this indie feature where Harewood takes center stage as the main lead. I must confess, though: for a movie all about wacky comedy, All Joking Aside gets off to a slow and humor-light start. Much of the first 20 minutes is all about Charlie and establishing her life, and it takes a while into her mentorship with Bob for the pair to begin truly warming up to each other. And overall, All Joking Aside's story is devoid of bells and whistles; a good chunk of screentime is just Charlie and Bob's conversations. But while the slow pace isn't always for the best, it leads into a surprisingly engaging story about an intergenerational friendship between two people with the same passion for comedy. What the story lacks in frills, it makes up for with genuine actors playing genuine characters.

Charlie is easy to like right off the bat as an aspiring comic, with Harewood selling Charlie's humiliation at her first performance ending in her being heckled offstage. Throughout the movie, you get to see Charlie expand and grow as a comic under Bob's tutelage--from becoming more at-ease on stage to incorporating darker parts of her life into her routine. It's a realistically slow process, one which the script and Harewood let play out organically. Charlie doesn't morph into a comedy wizard right after her first lesson with Bob; it takes a few lessons and some less-than-stellar performances before she finds her groove. But once Charlie finds that groove, the change is visible in her improved material and relaxed demeanor behind the microphone.

Opposite Harewood is Brian Markinson as washed-up comic Bob Carpenter, the more rough-around-the-edges protagonist of All Joking Aside. Since we're introduced to Bob as a drunken heckler harassing Charlie, having a bad first impression of him is inevitable. But once he begins teaching Charlie the ways of a standup comic, Markinson begins giving Bob a soft side. Even at the beginning of the mentorship when Bob is still as sarcastic and bitter as ever, Markinson plays it in a way where you can tell Bob has a good side to him and is already starting to like Charlie--even if he won't admit it. And even though we don't get to see much of Bob's heyday, Markinson gives his character's comedic passion such zeal that you believe in his established reputation as a renowned comic. Bob's backstory involving his daughter and ex-wife also helps build up sympathy for his character, especially with how vindictive said ex-wife comes across from what little we see of her. So in the end, for all his snarky jabs, Bob becomes just as likable as Charlie, with Markinson and Harewood playing well off each other as their characters form an unlikely bond.

With Charlie and Bob being the movie's focal point for much of its runtime, the supporting cast is only given so much room to shine. But for the most part, the secondary players of All Joking Aside do well to make an impression. Richard Lett (a standup comedian who I reviewed a documentary about last year) makes the most impression as gruff-but-lovable club owner Dennis. You can tell he cares a lot about Charlie and Bob, but at the same time, he isn't afraid to give the latter some well-earned attitude for his crabbiness. Tanya Jade is lovably supportive as Charlie's friend/roommate Kim, who joins Dennis in giving Bob some smack for his rude behavior before recognizing his better side like Charlie does.

David Lewis has a funny cameo as Charlie's annoyingly cheery boss Pete, does Cedric Ducharme as her brother Daniel. But once again, Katrina Reynolds gives a solid performance as a less-than-solidly-written character: Charlie's estranged mother Vicky. While Reynolds does sell Vicky's regret for her and her daughter's estrangement and her desperation to mend bridges, the subplot feels like such a rush job that the conflict hardly has time to take any effect. Given how weighty and morally thorny the source of Vicky and Charlie's dispute is, this sloppy execution comes with a dash of unfortunate implications. SPOILER ALERT But it's nothing compared to the cheap Third-Act Misunderstanding between Charlie and Bob. It's a standard "there'd be no conflict if these two would actually communicate" fare that always gets under my skin, but what makes it worse is how little impact it has on the plot. Things go on well for Charlie's official debut, and despite Bob never giving Charlie the context behind what she heard him say about her, the two end the movie inexplicably reconciled. It still makes for a sweet finale, but this unnecessary and barely-there roadblock still sticks out in the worst way possible.

(Though on the plus side, this did create a bit of a surprise for me. Going into the final act, I was expecting the third-act complication to be Charlie's skin cancer returning. But instead, that gets resolved with the revelation that Charlie's worries were all in vain. So points for All Joking Aside throwing me a curveball, even if it was unintentional) Spoilers Over

The story itself is where most of All Joking Aside's problems lie. In addition to the writing fumbles mentioned right above and in the Spoiler section, the overall subdued pace and especially slow opening might have some viewers feeling antsy. It's when Charlie and Bob's friendship begins to grow and allow them to better themselves as people that the film becomes as enjoyable as Charlie's improved acts are witty. The changing dynamic between Charlie and Bob is nice to watch unfold and the film's overall mood is a lighthearted one that matches its themes and subject matter. Much like Charlie's first few times behind the microphone, All Joking Aside is far from perfect, but it has an alluring energy beneath its flawed surface that makes it a worthwhile watch.

Score: 6 out of 10 blood donation stickers.


Trevor Wells

Aspiring writer and film blogger: Lifetime, Hallmark, indie, and anything else that strikes my interest. He/him.

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