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Wayback Wednesday: Punchline (1988)

Oh, so it’s the stand-up version of “A Star Is Born?”

Happy April Fool’s Day!

So, because of the aforementioned holiday, and the fact that I’m pretty sure we could all use a laugh right now, I decided to review a movie that at it’s core, was comedic through and through. For the sake of keeping things fresh, I also wanted to watch something I hadn’t seen before. Which is how I ended up watching Punchline (1988), an ’80s comedy about the world of stand-up comedy. This movie checks a lot of boxes for me: A New York City-based comedy about performers, starring Sally Field and Tom Hanks? Fuck yes to all of this! While Punchline provides enough heart and laughs for a viewing, like most stand-up shows, it’s probably best seen only once.

Screen Shot 2020-03-31 at 4.48.27 PM
Credit: / Columbia Pictures

Written and directed by David Seltzer, Punchline follows Lilah Krytsick, a frustrated housewife trying to break into the world of stand-up comedy. When she meets Steven Gold, a talented young comic on the rise, she learns how to harness her own raw talent and command the craft the way Steven does. However, as she pursues her dream of being a stand-up comedian, Lilah must also balance taking care of her family as well.

I’ll be honest, given the premise, I was expecting Punchline to be a lot funnier. Don’t get me wrong, it certainly has its moments where you’re genuinely laughing at the jokes, but I was expecting my gut to bust with hilarity. Reader, “bust,” my gut did not. The jokes are  by no means bad and in fact, the humour is timeless enough that if you tweaked it just a touch with some updated references, you could probably make it work for an audience today. I think what holds Punchline back from being an all-out comedy delight, is that it gives itself the added task of including a marital drama, AND a forced love triangle. There are moments where those elements positively contribute to the story but overall, they end up overcrowding what should be a straightforward story. I just want to see Field and Hanks perform stand-up for two hours. The added material weighs down their charming performances.

I absolutely ADORE Sally Field and Tom Hanks. Both in comedies, and literally, any other genre. I can’t even begin to count how many of their movies are near and dear to my heart. Mrs. Doubtfire (1993)? A League of Their Own (1992)? Hell, YES. These are two actors who ooze charisma, energy, and talent, qualities that are on full display in Punchline. As Lilah and Steven respectively, Field and Hanks are completely believable as stand-up comedians. Truly, if I had no idea who these two were, I would have assumed they were amateur comedians using this movie to kickstart their careers. The pair have astounding comedic timing and I frequently found myself laughing not at the joke itself, but the way Field or Hanks delivered it.

Both actors embody their characters perfectly, capturing the desperation and determination that anyone with a dream has used to motivate themselves. Of course, I expect nothing less from actors of Field and Hanks’ pedigree. As much as the comedy scenes, the duo nail the scenes that call on their dramatic chops. Of course, I would have appreciated Punchline more if it were streamlined as a pure comedy, but the few times it insists on dabbling in drama, it does so with restraint. However, there was one aspect I wish the movie had shown much more restraint: The unnecessary romance between Lilah and Steven. Field and Hanks have great chemistry (duh, they’re amazing) but I never like when a romance blossoms only because the movie says it must. Again, it detracts from the fun silliness the pair bring to the screen.

Screen Shot 2020-03-31 at 4.09.32 PM
Credit: / Columbia Pictures

When it’s not delivering pretty adequate scenes of stand-up, Punchline handles its subplot of Lilah’s crumbling marriage…well? It’s hard to say. On the one hand, it’s fantastic to see her use comedy an an escape from her sour husband and ungrateful children. I fully support that because honestly, her home life is pretty terrible. On the other, she’s also kind of a terrible mom. Like, she forgets to feed her children, frequently breaks off commitments, disappears in the middle of the night…I mean, go Lilah, but girl, you should probably check in on your kids.

It’s frustrating to watch because the movie flip flops, and both praises and villifies her actions, making for a decidedly less fun time than watching her perform in comedy clubs. Oh, and then suddenly all her problems are fixed when her husband watches her perform for the first time and she crushes it? And she abandons stardom because it seems her marriage is salvageable? Punchline doesn’t deliver the most satisfying of endings, but it’s one that makes sense for the story the movie tells so, in my opinion, it’s a fitting finale. Frustrating to witness, but fitting for the characters.

Punchline is a polarizing movie. It’s a fair amount of fun and I’d recommend watching it for the performances of the lead actors, but honestly, one viewing is all you need. At the very least, you could look up the stand-up routines on YouTube. I’ll admit, I’m a little disappointed that I didn’t end up LOVING this movie, but I’m perfectly pleased at the two hours I spent watching it. Why? Because Sally Field and Tom Hanks are EVERYTHING. And that’s no joke.

Will you see Punchline?

Let me know in the comments or on social media!

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