SXSW '11 Review: Conan O'Brien Can't Stop
Conan O’Brien’s career has been well-documented both in the press and in New York Times writer Bill Carter’s extensive (and fascinating) book, The War for Late Night. Filmmaker Rodman Flender set out to flesh out his tale by documenting the performer’s summer long live comedy tour while he was barred from being on television. Save for a few salient moments, Conan O’Brien Can’t Stop serves more as a peek at the show he performed and less of a character study of one of the most fascinating late night stars in television. The unprecedented access is squandered, showing us little more than the Conan we already knew from TV.
The buzzword surrounding the film is “Mean Conan”, the unguarded version of Conan that punches his writers, threatens to fire his assistant and can’t help but waste his energy and voice for the opportunity to entertain adoring fans. The trouble is that there’s no clear narrative to the documentary at all. You basically come along for a ride on the tour bus through some forty-odd performances. To be fair, it’s a pretty fun ride. I couldn’t stop laughing the entire film.
My main problem is that the film doesn’t do much more than show us Conan on the road. There is mention made of how he came to lose his gig at NBC, but it skips over some of the more poignant points about his career turns over the years (the entire backstory is told through a repurposed Taiwanese animation). Very little is made of his career as a writer, or even of his time helming NBC’s 12:35 block (though even money says this was a rights issue for that footage). Those who know nothing of Conan’s professional travails will be lost from the get-go, which is why it plays more like a circle-jerk for fans than as a true narrative.
That’s not to say there aren’t some great scenes. In one instance, after a show in New York City, Conan’s producer Jeff Ross tells him not to greet the enormous group of fans behind a barricade outside his green room. “You don’t get it, Jeff. I can’t just go home and read a fucking Kindle after a show. I have to go out there.” It’s funny but it’s also a great insight on him as a performer and a character.
Conan puts himself out there, warts and all, in this film. I only wish a braver filmmaker had been behind the camera, or at the editing bay, to help bring out a more human picture of him. I was expecting something along the lines of Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work, which works both as a portrait and as a comedy road film. Conan O’Brien Can’t Stop may have many great moments, but the piece as a whole never comes together.
All that being said, it’s funny as hell and definitely worth a look, especially if you’re a Conan fan. If you’re not, I think the Joan Rivers doc is out on DVD.