Louis C.K. (Louie) and Zach Galifianakis’ (Between Two Ferns) brand of devastating comedy is all shades of brilliant and, at times, boring. That being said, while FX’s new tragicomedy Baskets may not inspire too many laughs, it is yet another show emerging in an era of new-age comedy — the idea that there’s an introspective humor to be found in the daily pitfalls of life.
Baskets — which he writes, produces and stars in — may just be Galifianakis’ most ambitious effort yet. One of his strengths as a comedian and an actor is his ability to make self-deprecating, dry, cruel humor likable; but the middle-aged failure of a clown, Chip Baskets, a.k.a. Renoir, is arguably the least likable of Galifianakis’ usual bumbling idiot roles. In fact, he’s not even the funniest person in Baskets, making him the true epitome of failure.
Baskets lives in a dream world among the blue roofs of Paris. We’re confronted with both his determination and his narcissistic shortcomings when he flunks out of the Académie de Clown Français because he doesn’t speak French, and even his clown professor refuses to take his request for tutoring seriously. Faced with a doomed financial situation — he can only afford to eat a carrot at a fine restaurant — Baskets asks his girlfriend, Penelope (Sabina Sciubba), to marry him and move to Bakersfield, California.
“You look like a clown, but you’re not a clown,” she says.
This kind of brutal honesty is inspired by the fact that she simply married him for a green card and a chance to live in the Sunshine State. It’s one of the many painful exchanges in “Renoir,” but there’s something to be said about a show that holds no punches.
Unfortunately for Baskets, the best job he can find in America is comic relief at the Buckaroo Rodeo for four dollars an hour, which he suffers through while living in a motel and rollerblading to and from work since he’s a suffering artiste and all. His one chance at a meaningful relationship, with his monotone but kind insurance agent Martha (Martha Kelly), is somewhat thwarted by his man-child tantrums and surly demeanor, and he doesn’t do himself any favors by constantly taking advantage of her meekness.
But he’s not so incapable of empathy or real feelings that he doesn’t realize the futility of his dreams. After asking Penelope to get back together with him, Baskets prepares for “Renoir’s” final glittering performance, complete with sparkles, a maudlin French ballad over the loudspeaker and a bull crashing into him and ruining the moment — but not for the audience, who would rather see cheap clowns get beat up then witness some “French dance moves.”
It’s a sober subject of crushed pipe dreams, but Baskets isn’t necessarily depressing — at least, not entirely. Some of the funnier and more inspiring moments come not from the bleak picture of adulthood but instead from the bleak picture of childhood. The least successful son of two sets of twins, Chip has an achingly realistic relationship with his mother, played by Louis Anderson, who is almost as befuddled as everyone else with Chips determination. And then of course there’s the more successful ‘evil’ twin brother Dale, also played by Galifianakis. This role is more recognizable, think of Marty in The Campaign but less of a softie, and it’ll be interesting to see how he keeps up the double duty.
Baskets is not an up-beat comedy for down-beat times, but in all fairness, it does reach for a more ‘glass is half full’ ending. Kelly’s role more so than any other is the most promising if her tepid Martha can stand up to Baskets and raise her voice maybe just once. Until then this monotone show — which is more smart than funny, a trend lately — falls under the category of decent new shows worth your time, but certainly not better than it’s competitors.
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