The Bitter Buddha (2013)
6/10 Walking Contradictions
Could have been something with a little more focus.
The Bitter Buddha is a documentary about Eddie Pepitone. If you haven’t heard of Eddie Pepitone, that’s okay, you’re not alone. He’s 54-years-old, he’s a stand-up comedian, and he’s been working the comedy club circuit for over 30 years now. Despite his notoriety as a “comedian’s comedian,” his success among his peers never quite led to success among the masses. But if you asked Eddie, he’s still working for that day to arrive. So he keeps writing his jokes, keeps doing this thing, and keeps making the rounds to make us all laugh.
As for me, never heard of the guy. Granted, I’m not exactly holing up at the Laugh Shack and scoping out new talent on the weekends, but that’s more a result of my fickle feelings towards the medium. When it comes stand-up, it’s rare that I find someone who I’ll actively YouTube at length just to see if there’s any material I might have missed. Rodney Dangerfield, Dave Chappelle, Norm MacDonald – that’s the kind of stuff that murders my productivity in a given day, the kind of stuff that I hold as the standard by which all others are judged.
But for a good little while there, Eddie Pepitone was meeting that standard.
Without question, I laughed more at the first half-hour of The Bitter Buddha than I probably did in the entirety of any movie I saw last year. Part of that’s because the pickin’s were awfully slim in the comedy department last year, but mostly it’s because Pepitone’s good at what he does. He’s got a style all his own, he knows how to work a crowd, and while laughing out loud isn’t my usual reaction to these kinds of things, damn if he didn’t have me doing just that.
Which leads us to the big question driving this whole biopic, “Why, after three decades of making people laugh, isn’t Eddie Pepitone a household name?”
And it’s a good question. It’d be one thing if he sucked, but since that isn’t the case, one can’t help but wonder why there are so many unfunny people out there gaining overnight fame when there are people like Eddie still trying to get there. To think that Whitney Cummings has multiple shows and Eddie Pepitone is struggling to land a bit part on How I Met Your Mother is enough to convince someone that we’re living in Bizarro World. And it’s not like you can blame good looks either, because if that were the case, Rodney never would have hit the big time. But yet, that’s the way it is, and it’s especially interesting given the career path of someone like Louis C.K.
Now, before Louie, before he became generally regarded as the funniest mother-effer on planet Earth, Louis C.K. was a stand-up comedian struggling for decades to make a name for himself. Not only that, but he was funny as hell. These days, you’d be hard-pressed to find someone who hasn’t heard of him, but the fact remains that it took a long-ass time for him to get his proper due. So with Louie’s recent fame as a late bloomer fresh in our minds, the thinking behind this doc is that maybe, just maybe, the same thing’s gonna happen to Eddie, and that somewhere down the line, we’ll be able to say we were first on the bandwagon.
And for that first half-hour, it’s almost hard to imagine that not happening to Eddie. At the very least, it’s hard not to hope for that to happen to him. But as the movie continued, my enthusiasm started to wane.
As for what makes up the bulk of the movie, I’d say a third of it is Eddie doing stand-up. As for what makes up an Eddie Pepitone set, you can pretty much boil it down to yelling and anger. It’s not quite Sam Kinison, but if Sam Kinison were alive today as a blue-collar Yankees fan from Staten Island, it’d be close. And for a while there, when he’s turning his traumatic childhood into self-depraving comedy gold, it works. But after a while, it seemed like he kept raging about a lot of the same things, and what can I say, yelling is a novelty that tends to wear off pretty quick with me.
As for what makes up the other two-thirds of the movie, you’ve got Eddie off the stage, going about his life and talking to the cameras about anything that comes to mind. It’s interesting for what it is, but to be honest, it just wasn’t interesting enough to keep me interested. And truth be told, that sucks. I’ve only seen one other documentary in my life where I just didn’t care about the guy in front the camera, and while Eddie isn’t intolerable by any means, I really wish I had cared more about him at the end as much as I had at the start.
The long and short of it is that by the time this was all over, I just didn’t feel like I knew who Eddie was. Maybe he really is this “Bitter Buddha” that he’s introduced to us as, this guy who meditates in the mountains and feeds squirrels in the park when he’s not ripping Twitter a new asshole. And I’d like to believe that’s who Eddie really is, but there were too many instances that made me suspect otherwise, like when his friend Marc Maron keeps calling him out on hamming for the camera and Eddie responds by trying to play dumb. As a portrait of the artist, I can’t shake this nagging feeling that we’ve been presented with a forgery, that the Eddie we’re seeing is just the guy Eddie wants us to see, and in a movie like this, that can be a dealbreaker.
Now, if that had been a focal point of the movie, like how Exit Through the Gift Shop painted Banksy and Thierry Guetta, then we’d have something to work with. But unfortunately, there’s just nothing all that raw about this doc or its subject, and with each new hypocritical or conflicting thing that I learned about this guy, the less interesting I found him.
But it’s not all his fault either. This here is a very unfocused movie, to the point where it’s hard to even tell what the point is at times. Because rather than try to tell a story that naturally progresses from one aspect of his life to the next, it functions more as an excuse to just follow Eddie around, documenting everything that comes out of his mouth. The one bit of structure it has going for it is this big lead-up to Eddie’s first time headlining a show at the Gotham Comedy Club, but even that seems out of place. It’s not like in Anvil! The Story of Anvil where the main characters have been working their entire lives to get to this moment and their entire future rests on its success; this just feels like another one of Eddie’s shows, not a make-it-or-break-it kinda situation in the slightest. The only remotely high-stakes thing about it is whether or not his estranged father will show up, and even that one goes out with a whimper.
It just baffles me why director Steven Feinartz went for this approach of all things, because climaxes don’t get much more anticlimactic. Man, if Feinartz had managed to capture in 90 minutes what Julien Nitzburg captured about Patton Oswalt in just 10 minutes, we’d have much more enthusiastic review on our hands. Seriously, hit up that link, you’ll be better off for it.
At any rate, I hate to be taking such a hardass tone with this review, because for everything that struck me as so suspect about it, it’s ultimately a harmless, semi-insightful movie about a guy and a profession that I can’t even pretend to really know about. Sure, I wasn’t left wondering “Why the hell isn’t Eddie famous?” like I was when this all started, and it’s also one of the more forgettable docs I’ve seen in quite a while. But if nothing else, it’s good for some laughs, and while I’d be surprised if this led to Eddie’s big break, more power to him if it does.
After all, if Whitney can get renewed for a second season, anything is possible in this crazy, crazy world.