MICerz (2021)

Arnold (Austin Torelli) is a dreamer, but also a loser – and both those qualities are essential to the dynamics that drive writer/director Omar Dzlieri’s feature debut MICerz

He is a dreamer because he has left his cosy boring life in Dayton, Ohio, and followed the path of so many other aspiring stars to Los Angeles, California, where he hopes to realise his high ambitions of becoming a professional comedian. And he is a loser because he cravenly flees any opportunity to take the mic, and because a DUI charge – his second – has lost him his licence, his livelihood (as a hired driver) and his long-suffering girlfriend Mary (Carla Lomelin), and left him living out of a van which he is no longer permitted to drive and which in any case has broken down. He is stuck in a rut and going nowhere, both literally and metaphorically.

Permanently parked behind the North Hollywood hole-in-the-wall comedy club which he last visited, and which is (significantly) called The Bomb Shelter, Arnold meets its owner Dave (Joe Manente), a grouchy, tightly-wound ex rocker with his own problems. Dave agrees to let Arnold stay in return for help maintaining the underground club, and soon Arnold is getting to know the crew of comics who regularly take to the stage and ceaselessly roast each other there. He even starts picking up the open mic himself, in his first uneasy steps towards standing up – on his own two feet -before the baying, heckling crowd.

There is a whole genre of films in which true underdog heroes are seen triumphing over adversity. MICerz is not one of those. It may, as Dave and his friends struggle to keep The Bomb Shelter afloat, flirt with familiar “let’s put on a show” tropes – but like many of its characters, it never follows through. For this is not a success story about real talent shining through and rising to the top, but about a collection of fuck-ups, fakes and failures whose very flaws are what make them both human and funny. Arnold may constantly complain of his homeless, humiliated state, but the more experienced comedian Nelly (Kaylah Pantaléon) recognises that this represents an admirable treasure trove of comic material, and even expresses envy. “You’re heartbroken, and you live by a fucking dumpster,” she tells him. “I would give anything to have that fresh hurt again.”

Accordingly while MICerz may feature lots of stand-up footage, much of it involves comedians crashing and burning on stage, whether through straightforward lack of comic skills and timing, or owing to their personal problems. Arnold too, who is just starting out and never particularly good at what he does, gets to fail and fail again. “Every bomb is a gift,” Dave will tell him, “your whole life is a bomb.” That alchemical proximity of failure to comedy gold is both the film’s principal theme, and its very stuff. For like the stand-up acts that it portrays warts and all, this is a down-and-dirty, hit-and-miss affair that kills as many laughs as it lands – but in putting that very vulnerability in the spotlight, finds its own beating, if grizzled, heart. Arnold, Dave and the others are not the stellar Dave Chappelles or Chris Rocks of the comedy circuit, but its bottom feeders, honing (or not) their art at the mic and occasionally winning gigs opening for bigger names. 

There is a disillusioning moment here, familiar to any would-be freelancer, when Arnold is made to realise that all his stand-up friends – even the relatively successful ones – have day jobs to make ends meet. For though it is full of unashamedly crass repartee and its characters (many real stand-ups – like Dante Chang, Griff Pippin and Amir Kalil – playing homonymous versions of themselves) are hilarious, the focus of MICerz is less on the laughs than on the struggle of comedy. It remains unclear if Arnold will ever find the fame that he seeks – but what he does acquire is the roughhousing cameraderie of similarly striving peers who embrace him for all his faults and treat him like family. After all, if you cannot achieve the American dream (and most of us cannot), at least find folk like this with whom you can lose together, and – if you’re lucky – capitalise on your own folly. B’dum tish!

strap: Omar Dzlieri’s feature debut shows the proximity of failure to funny – and to family – on the underground comedy circuit

© Anton Bitel