Comedian and actor Steve Byrne makes his feature screenwriting and directorial debut with “The Opening Act,” now available on VOD and in select theaters. Byrne, best known for co-creating and starring on the TBS sitcom “Sullivan & Son,” makes a smooth transition to becoming a full-fledged filmmaker.
Will Chu (Jimmy O. Yang) is a nice kid trying to make a name for himself in Steubenville, Ohio’s standup comedy scene. By day he works as an insurance claims adjuster for his unkind and unfair boss, Barry (Bill Burr); by night he’s doing bringer shows. (One of Will’s “bringers” affords Dan Lauria a nice little cameo – he was the Sullivan of “Sullivan & Son.”) Will’s presented a real opportunity by more established comedian Quinn (Ken Jeong, funny in a limited role), when he’s asked to MC for up-and-coming comedian Chris (Alex Moffat of “Saturday Night Live”) and the famed but fading Billy G. (Cedric the Entertainer) in Pittsburgh. Will asks Barry for a Friday off to accommodate the gig – Barry flatly denies the request – prompting Will to quit. Will leaves his girlfriend, Jen (Debby Ryan), behind for the weekend and heads to Pittsburgh for his make or break moment.
“The Opening Act” feels much more authentic than “Punchline” (no comedians are shown using lockers) and hews closer to Judd Apatow’s “Funny People,” though it’s far less polished and far shorter (90 minutes as opposed to 153). It’s a hangout movie first and foremost. And it works because you’ll root for Yang’s Will, who may possibly be too nice of a guy for the comedy world. Yang is an actor I’ve always liked – his Jian-Yang was hilarious on HBO’s “Silicon Valley,” I cared about the safety of his real-life hero Dun Meng in Peter Berg’s “Patriots Day” and gave “Fantasy Island” one star more than I probably should’ve earlier this year due to the sight of Yang and Ryan Hansen feeding hand grenades into a pitching machine. “The Opening Act” is a showcase for Yang and he makes the most of it.
Ably supporting Yang are Moffat and Cedric the Entertainer. Moffat’s Chris is a hard-partying womanizer who attempts to tempt Will to cheat on Jen with a groupie. (Ryan’s Jen is certainly portrayed as kind, supportive and attractive with limited screen time. I wish she were better developed to further cement why Will wouldn’t stray from her other than his inherent decency.) Chris is unsuccessful in this pursuit, but looks out for Will in other respects such as bringing him along for a spot on a morning radio show. Cedric the Entertainer’s Billy G. is a comedian Will grew up idolizing. He’s terse with the young man when he botches his introduction, but is kind and supportive enough to later have lunches with him during which he offers advice and encouragement.
Having a comedian such as Byrne write and direct an inside look into the comedy world lends the proceedings an air of authenticity. Having comedians such as Neal Brennan (playing an eccentric club owner named Chip), Whitney Cummings, Felipe Esparza, Russell Peters, Tom Segura and Roy Wood Jr. on hand doesn’t hurt matters either. Byrne must be easy to work with as “Sullivan & Son” producers Peter Billingsley (Ralphie!) and Vince Vaughn produced this as well. The resulting product is an easy watch too – it’s good-natured and more charming than it is funny. I liked it well enough that I’ll be on the lookout for whatever Byrne does next.