The great joke of the title CONAN O’BRIEN CAN’T STOP is that I was wondering the whole time when he was going to start. It takes fifteen minutes for Rodman Flender’s topical documentary to find a funny scene, this one a staff meeting for the upcoming, taxonomically misfiled comedy tour, when after making his minions speak into a banana Conan O’Brien jokingly says, “I’m sick of people saying I’m drunk with power and I’ve lost perspective.” Thing is, the film presents a guy who’s just this side of a Lucasian moat of yes-men, constantly joke-punching his staff in a display of humor unmatched by anyone since Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, and as for perspective, everyone signs off on Conan parodying Willie Nelson with the pity party hit of summer “My Own Show Again.” It’s that kind of scintillating wit you expect from the staid late night variety trust Conan O’Brien is perceived to have busted. “I’m the least entitled person you’ll meet in the world,” he says with brass ball humility. Speaking of people who no longer have television shows, Andy Richter may as well have an applause button because his sparing appearances are very funny, and somehow he never once frames himself as a recession-era victim.
It’s an undistinguished film if not a bad one, more a straightforward compilation of home video footage—and a well-placed snippet of the Taiwanese animation describing Lenogate, Conan’s unemployment being somewhat more glamorous than ours—than an illuminating pop culture personality portrait, and it pales next to the recent entries in the genre like JOAN RIVERS: PIECE OF WORK, JUSTIN BIEBER: NEVER SAY NEVER, THE SEPTEMBER ISSUE and especially I’M STILL HERE, which is like if CONAN O’BRIEN CAN’T STOP were in on the joke of its own narcissism. Without a point of view, the film rides entirely on its subject, and all we learn is that Bonnaroo is free from the burden of body-image issues and Conan is still very angry despite spending his post-TONIGHT SHOW tenure like a folk hero in a mansion with a documentary crew and a sold-out public therapy parade. That anger fuels and is fueled by Conan’s compulsion to entertain, and it’s Flender’s greatest success that we buy the burden.
Famous for his silliness, the least he could do is let us laugh, but the film is about as funny as the comedy tour, which is only half comedy (monologue, sketch, guest stars like Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert, who gives good narcissism nightly) and half talent show (musical performance by Conan and guest acts like Jack White and Eddie Vedder). Conan makes fun of yokels who cheer the name of their town, but it’s the same Pavlovian ovation we give to anything a sympathetic figure like Conan does, including sub-Bieber musical performance. The applause comes either way, but there’s a difference between an audience that’s satisfied and an audience that’s just being nice. Nobody gets anything out of Conan O’Brien earnestly playing guitar but the sneaking suspicion they’ve been had.
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Brandon Nowalk writes about film and television for the Maroon Weekly in College Station, TX and at his blog But What She Said and recently joined Twitter @bnowalk. His favorite films beyond the usual suspects include Henry King’s The Gunfighter, Alain Resnais’ Last Year at Marienbad, Orson Welles’ The Trial, Jan Nemec’s Diamonds of the Night, and David Lynch’s Inland Empire.