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Film Review: Harmontown

on October 30, 2014, 12:00am

Throughout the 101 minutes of Harmontown, a vast array of individuals weigh in on Dan Harmon — collaborators, employers, employees, celebrities, devotees, friends, and perhaps most frequently, himself. The man most famous for having created Community (and then getting fired and then re-hired from his role running the TV comedy) is described as mercurial, genius, volatile, alcoholic, and difficult, among many other things. And it’s all true. John Oliver put it succinctly: he’s “a human hand grenade with a predilection for pulling his own pin out.” The problem is that sometimes the resulting explosion is one of brilliant comedic confetti and other times its something a bit more … destructive.

In order to capture that explosive presence, Neil Berkeley embedded himself like a war reporter, following Harmon, his girlfriend/comedian/podcaster Erin McGathy, close friend/Whose Line Is It Anyway? improviser Jeff Davis, and dungeon-master Spencer Crittenden (much more on that later) on a nationwide bus tour of their hit podcast, Harmontown. The founding conceit of the podcast runs parallel to the resulting documentary and Harmon himself: The show started off as a weekly town hall meeting preparing their cultish following to start a brand new community on the moon, but quickly shed that skin in favor of weekly explorations of race, Uber politics, gender, freestyle rapping, race, sexuality, race, mortality, and race. (Dude has an obsession with race.) Oh, and they play a quick burst of a continuing Dungeons & Dragons quest at the end of each episode.

As the star of the show, Harmon himself can be a bit of an acquired taste, displayed quite well in the documentary. He’s a drinker, and that combined with his strong opinions, social anxiety, and ability to wield sentences with knifelike precision can come off as (and likely frequently is) aloof, dominating, even combative. But its clear from the myriad shots of radiant fans discussing his importance in their lives that once you acquire that taste, it becomes an essential.

“A Harmenian is a loving nerd,” Harmon says of his fans, describing overcoming his inability to make contact with strangers because these people that follow him are just as brilliantly awkward as he is. Berkeley haloes the fans, giving them a moment to laud Harmon as the hero of their sect of good-natured, obsessive outsiders. It’s a bit heavy-handed at times, though charming. But, rather than act as a sort of apostolic puff-piece, Berkeley does well to snap this off into two separate but equally important branches. The first of these is Crittenden — a guy perhaps just too old to plausibly be Harmon’s son who happened to be in the audience at a podcast taping when Harmon announced he’d like to start playing D&D. Throughout the tour and resulting documentary, the early 20s, Viking-like, dungeon master who left a retail job and a room at his parents’  home to go on tour slowly, shyly reveals a stony deadpan, arid sense of humor, and vastly imaginative storytelling ability. He becomes the everynerd, the example of what sort of brilliance all of these social outcasts have boiling underneath the surface if given the chance.

The other branch that Berkeley explores similarly boils, but perhaps more violently: that procrastinating, self-destructive tendency of Harmon’s. Berkeley pulls few punches, showing the boozy ride around the country in gulps of vodka (including a memorable moonshine-fueled stop in Nashville) and Harmon repeatedly sitting at a laptop, explaining that he has two pilot scripts overdue to two different networks. His relationship with McGathy is shown sparingly; fans of the podcast would note a particularly contentious Pittsburgh show omitted here, the hurt-feelings-bomb left behind structurally in the documentary in favor of a low-grade sizzle. Via a head-attached GoPro camera in a tour bus bathroom, Berkeley allows Harmon the opportunity to come to his own realizations about his issues, a deft move considering how super-willing he is to break everything down to nuts and bolts, trying to find a reason for the tour. In that sense, the documentary is about his chase for connection with the audience, an audience he couldn’t see or feel while working in television.

The two halves of that equation — the glorification of Harmenians like Crittenden and the exploration of Harmon’s search for meaning — don’t always join perfectly. It could be said that his desire to be “the guy who makes people happy” is met in every beaming face and the rise of the alt comedy podcasting star that is his dungeon mastering pal. But there’s something more, too: Harmon himself suggests that Crittenden is the star of the documentary, after admitting to needing to make some “shame-based” edits to that moonshine-cast. “I must kill Spencer, or he must kill me,” he deadpans, the stuff of the Joseph Campbellian myth that fueled even his sitcom. Berkeley’s framing, then, revels in the disjointing of those two halves. Crittenden is the hero that Harmon writes, following a traditional arc, and Harmon is the hero that Berkeley writes, making small, yet incredibly meaningful connections along the winding, chaotic, Ketel One-soaked road.

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