‘Crashing’ Review: Pete Holmes & Judd Apatow Find Hope in the New York Comedy Scene

     February 17, 2017

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Crashing, Pete Holmes‘ intimate look at a fledgeling life in the New York City comedy scene, fits into two familiar and reliable modes. One is the post-Curb Your Enthusiasm HBO comedy series mode: intimate comedies of manners and ambitions centered on (primarily white) twenty-and-thirty-somethings. Holmes, playing an eternally emasculated and humiliated version of himself, is of the same breed as Thomas Middleditch‘s entrepreneur in the making from Silicon Valley, as well as the ubiquitous weed dealer of High Maintenance, and even shares some of the traits of the central quartet from Lena Dunham‘s Girls. And like those series, Crashing is surprisingly emotionally resonant, occasionally very funny, and wildly insightful when it comes to matters of repressed desires and unexpected, life-augmenting disappointments.

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Image via HBO

It’s also a preeminent example of the works of Judd Apatow, who serves as an executive producer here and directs the pilot. Apatow is a hugely undervalued, if occasionally problematic director, in a similar stylistic mode as the movies of Albert Brooks, Hal Ashby, Otto Preminger, and James L. Brooks. His comedies and TV series, including Crashing, relate chiefly to white post-collegiates and is limited in its engagement with modern society, but that doesn’t mean the production is without its delights and a remarkable sort of wisdom. Apatow is remarkably generous to his performers, and that way of letting actors get loose and impulsive with their characters carried over to Girls and Crashing. It’s the focus on the changing, expressive faces of Holmes, gesticulations, and inventive bits of drama that have the feeling of authentic experience, such as when Holmes’ wannabe comedian runs away to the city from his upstate New York home without a place to stay after he walks in on his wife cheating on him.

The writing proves to be slyly reflective and expressive. There’s a great scene where Holmes must bargain with an old man who bought a dresser from his estranged wife (Lauren Lapkus), a piece of furniture that has Holmes’ old joke notebooks still taped to the bottom. Holmes screams that he just wants what he had back, and that’s clearly what the old man is after too by being so stubborn about his newly purchased property. Meanwhile, Holmes wants to retreat into his volumes of built-up material and recapture the remnants of the life he thought he had a firm grip on before he caught his wife cheating on him with Leif, a high-school art teacher. If nothing else, Crashing utilizes and hones a refreshing directness in relation to how quickly one’s sense of normalcy can be upended and how the reason for the destabilizing force is not always easy to judge.

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Image via HBO

In its depiction of an abrupt end to a seemingly good marriage, Crashing is particularly personal and empathetic. Lapkus, a talented actress that broke out in the first seasons of Orange is the New Black, has a difficult character to play: a kind, honest woman who has done something widely seen as the most obvious and hurtful of immoral acts. The writers don’t pretend like what Lapkus’ character did was no big deal but they also take time to convey that infidelity, more times than not, is an act spurred as much by the cheater as the person being cheated on. When she tells Holmes that she doesn’t love him enough to support him entirely in his comedy career – he is otherwise unemployed – it hurts, but his outrageous lack of responsibility and maturity clearly pushed her to the edge, and the show doesn’t skimp on displaying how insufferable he can be in his self-excusing.

That’s just as obvious when Holmes inadvertently offends one of Artie Lange‘s more dedicated fans, played by Gina Gershon, or when he allows people to ignore him or steamroll over him due to his passivity. As the show’s creator, Holmes crafts this version of himself to be well-intentioned and even talented but limited by his lack of experience, his aloof self-centered way of being, and, to a lesser degree, his Christianity. What Crashing does best is portray talent as a near-embryonic stage of any artist’s career, to envision the chasm that often exists between natural comedic gifts and the self-knowledge or confidence that must be developed to best display a unique sense of humor. And it’s just as sharp when looking at the not-so-great outcomes of actually building a career in comedy, whether it be in the guise of Lange, with his unstable sobriety or T.J. Miller‘s inflated sense of self and unshakeable loneliness.

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Image via HBO

The major issue with Crashing is a matter of scope. Though the writing boasts imaginative scenarios and an intimate sense of what it’s like to be a fool with nowhere to go, the show’s fixation on Holmes and the weaknesses of his character becomes repetitive quite quick. (Would that the series had gone all David Simon on this material and cultivated a small community of characters trying to make a buck and something like a life out of comedy in the most overcrowded marketplace for talent on this Earth). Lange and Miller offer something like that in consistent spurts but the show could benefit hugely from creating more of a hash out of this immediately fascinating and largely unsparing world. As it stands, however, Crashing remains fixated on a single proverbial wet noodle, seemingly unaware that wet noodles tend to be a lot more satisfying in groups.

Rating: ★★★ – Better Than Average

Crashing airs every Sunday night on HBO at 10:30 p.m. EST.

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