Film Review: Laugh Killer Laugh

Brusque and brutal, this downbeat crime story written and directed by former Jerky Boy Kamal Ahmed has a "down so far it looks like up to me" vibe that sets it apart from more conventional tough-guy pictures.
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Shy, inarticulate thief Frank Stone (William Forsythe), a hulking, battered-looking lug who works for preening, mid-level NYC crime boss Tough Tony (Victor Colicchio), just wants to do what he's good at—executing clean, efficient, high-yield heists—and be left alone. But apparently that's too much to ask: One of Tony's gang lives to belittle and torment Frank, calling him a freak, a dummy and worse, and everyone dismiss him as a weirdo loser.

Haunted by memories of vicious sexual abuse suffered at the hands of a brutal headmaster (Tom Sizemore), Frank can’t shrug off the taunts and retreats to his Spartan apartment on the Manhattan’s far west side. After a chance encounter with chubby, aggressively outgoing Jackie (Bianca Hunter), he joins her creative writing class and discovers a knack for translating his haunted thoughts into tough-guy prose. And Bianca makes it very clear that she'd like to go out with him, a prospect that Frank finds both attractive and terrifying. Probably needless to say, no good can come of this, and when Frank's two worlds collide the result isn't pretty.

Even if you vaguely remember late ‘80s/early '90s phone-prank comedians The Jerky Boys, odds are that co-creator Ahmed Kamal's name won’t ring a bell, even as their legacy of quietly relentless, soul-scarring comedy lives on in the work of Paul Feig, Amy Schumer and Seth MacFarlane. Kamal always took a backseat to front man Johnny Brennan and left the act in 1997 to become an independent filmmaker.

Conventional wisdom suggests that Kamal made the worst career move ever, and by any conventional yardstick that's true: Brennan is the one still reaping the rewards of minor-league Jerky stardom. But defying the downbeat conventional narrative, Kamal did become a filmmaker, starting with the microbudget, weirdly hypnotic God Has a Rap Sheet!in which a scabrous crew of jerks and losers (including Tom Noonan and William Smith) spend a long night in a cramped holding cell scratching their privates and talking trash. Suffice it to say that for all the unpromising précis, God was striking enough that both Abel Ferrara and Martin Scorsese sat up and took notice.

Laugh Killer Laugh (the exact nature of the title’s sly allusion to the “Laugh Children Laugh” soundtrack number from Horror of Party Beach eludes me, but surely there must be one beyond a head injury that makes Frank perceive everything as funny), is shaggy, baggy and the farthest thing from groundbreaking. But it has broke-down nerve to burn, and Forsythe's Frank is a surprisingly compelling character. He's not likeable, attractive or even relatable (to use the most meaningless word in showbiz lexicon after "pitchy"), but he has an undeniable presence that flat-out dares you to ignore him.

The film is the very definition of niche, too grim for the average fan of crime pictures, and too brutal for many viewers who might appreciate its matter-of-fact portrayal of the lives of many PTSD sufferers.

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