Crying with Laughter, UK 2009
Written and directed by Justin Molotnikov, available on DVD
Reviewed by Professor Robert Abrams, Professor of Psychiatry, Weill Cornell University, New York
One can debate about what might be the central message of Crying With Laughter, the production with an oxymoronic title written and directed by Justin Malotnikov—a film that is itself both dark and reassuring. In fact there must be several such messages, but to this reviewer, Crying With Laughter is mainly a stirring testament to the therapeutic power of reconstructive memory. However, this assertion requires quite a bit of explanation and reference to the film’s story line. Warning: massive spoiler alert.
Crying With Laughter opens with screenshots of a hapless failure of a man. Joey Frisk is a thirty-something-year-old Scottish stand-up comedian who is just about always drunk, profane and seemingly bent on self-destruction. He offends nearly everyone in his world, and while he’s loud and brash, he’s not even all that funny as a comedian. He owes money to his landlord, and he’s estranged from his wife. He’s the living embodiment of Freud’s concept of a “death instinct’—a man driven by a potent if unconscious current of self-defeat. He becomes human and grounded only in the moments when he lovingly and protectively embraces Amy, his sweet 6-year-old daughter.
Soon he is in very serious trouble. As part of his comedy routine he threatens the landlord to whom he is in arrears. When the landlord is in fact assaulted within inches of his life, Joey, who has no alibi, is the prime suspect. The situation is so dire that the viewer is compelled to wonder: what is it that is driving Joey to drink, to promiscuity and to a succession of ever-greater blunders? Is he just immature, a perpetual adolescent, suffering from arrested development? If there is a particular underlying sorrow or trauma he is re-living, or a past transgression for which he is punishing himself, why does he not see it?
A distinctly sinister former schoolmate whom Joey barely remembers, Frank, now befriends him, giving him and his daughter shelter. Frank then lures a reluctant Joey to a school “reunion”. What Frank actually intends is to kidnap a former teacher and execute revenge for a traumatic past secret. Unfortunately the frail teacher now lives in the throes of dementia. Throughout this encounter, Joey remembers neither Frank nor the old schoolmaster with any clarity.
One of the extraordinary and moving truths in the film emerges at this point: there can be no meaningful punishment of helpless and elderly demented individuals for the misdeeds of their past—not only because the revenge is in itself cruel and an “injustice”, but because its recipients cannot appreciate what is happening, and the whole enterprise has no possibility of providing “closure” for the victim. An unforgettable cinematic moment is forged by the incompatibility between the imagined school-master of the past—intimidating and manipulative—and the present image of a helpless old man. By any measure, the window of opportunity for confrontation has closed, and the belated effort to avenge the wrong only results in a deeper misery for all.
Without disclosing too many details of the secret that connects the three doomed characters for the reader, the film skillfully reveals why Joey had no conscious memory of the troubling past. Justin Molotnikov (film writer and director) has a deeper understanding: the powerful repression of traumatic memory that led Joey to “forget”—except for the fact that the willful sabotaging of his own life happened to have been his way of remembering. Even Joey’s choice of career seemed derived from an effort to neutralize the events that took place years earlier in that school: “I had to be funny”, he suddenly realizes.
Over the course of Frank’s rageful but futile scheming, Joey begins to appreciate the “interior fatality” of self-punishment that he has been living out; what had made Frank bitter had led Joey to become a self-created buffoon. Joey finds out that personal freedom can be gained whenever one’s own truth is uncovered and squarely faced. It might even be said that he has undergone a de facto psychoanalysis, or perhaps only a successful purge of the inevitable residua of traumatic memory: misdirected anger and unwarranted guilt. Either way, Frank has unknowingly given him a gift of incalculable value.
Much of what makes this film so satisfying to watch is attributable to the superb performances of the two principal actors, Stephen McCale as Joey Frisk, and Malcolm Shields as his counterpart in suffering, Frank Archer. Joey is wonderfully relatable, and even at his worst, he is also endearing, naïve and innocent. And who cannot recognize in himself at least a kernel of that self-destructiveness and immaturity that Joey had in such abundance? Frank, whose features are distorted into a permanent grimace, is in his bleak obsession as paralyzed in life as Joey had been, and he stands proxy for the destructive force of unresolved grievance.
However one chooses to characterize Joey’s transformational healing process, by the end of the film he unquestionably emerges as a changed man. He is an adult, a reliable sober citizen, more devoted to his daughter than ever. Few closing scenes could be more beautifully, poetically hopeful: in this one Joey walks, buoyantly and confidently, between neatly ordered parallel rows of trees under the brightest sunshine of his life.
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