A surprisingly warm variation on an often venal tale, Henry Phillips's pseudo-autobiography affectionately reflects, rather than coldly lampoons, the life of a stand-up. Phillips pulls a Seinfeld and plays "himself," a comedic singer-songwriter whose understated folk songs stealthily explode into Dadaist confessionals that, per his inept agent (Ratner), are like "James Taylor on smack." (The tag line is torpedoed once Phillips points out that Sweet Baby James was once an actual junkie.) The performer decides to move to Los Angeles, performs regularly at a local coffeeshop, and backs his way into and out of a record deal.
The fact that Phillips isn't much of a ha-ha-funny lead actually works in the film's favor, making the story less about scene-hogging personalities than the universal plight of workaday jokers. His life is filled with little indignities---endless couch-crashing, botched gigs---yet it's no worse than what kindred spirits serving coffee have to put up with, and the film never feels hermetic or bitter. Characters arise from caricatures, such as his failed-actor brother (Walker), who dresses as Batman for kiddie parties but still takes his vocation---and himself---very, very seriously. While never uproarious, Punching the Clown exudes the clever, warped sincerity of its star, eschewing uppercuts for a series of playful jabs.