The life of a travelling salesman is a tough one : schlepping to and fro to one dreary small town after another, making your nut, missing your family and, eventually, feeling your age.
But what if the Tupperware you are selling is, instead, you? And you are last season’s snaptop lunchbox?
Such is the scenario of comedian Bruce Madsen, portrayed by Adam Carolla in his self-penned, self-directed (both duties alongside Kevin Hench) comedy Road Hard.
In this coming-of-middleage movie, Madsen’s life, loosely based of Carolla’s real career trajectory, has changed from that of hot tv star of “The Bro Show” and wandered through the gravy days of network holding deals and the potential sitcoms they spawn. We catch up with Bruce as it sinks in: he is 50, alone, tired, unable to afford the lifestyle to which his family has become accustomed, and professionally a footnote in the success story of his former Bro Show partner (Jay Mohr). So off to Chuckle Town in Albuquerque he goes, with rollercase and trepidation in tow.
Although the viewer is invited to come along for the laughs, we enjoy a change of gear toward the end of the film, when Road Hard bravely breaks both of Jerry Seinfeld’s creation rules of Seinfeld: Bruce both hugs, and learns.
The change in Bruce’s life comes when he meets a woman, who, while not initially a big fan of his work, ticks almost every box in the list of “perfect”. Sassy, beautiful, refreshingly age appropriate, she has a conveniently dead husband who left her quite the treasure trove in the garage of her idyllic home. This comes in the package of actress (and possessor of one of the best laughs in the business), the lovely Diane Farr.
Carolla and company famously (mostly) crowd-funded this film, and if you want to give your mind a sweet little boggle, watch the names, all of those names, hundreds of names, scroll past during the closing credits (you’ll also get bonus stand-up bits from real life comics Luke McClory, John Crist and Brad Williams).
Road Hard does what it says on the can: it contains a lot of laughs. The team has also made a visually crisp film with that relatively small budget (credit to cinematographer Mårten Tedlin). However, as they say in some ads for the cars Adam Carolla may be fond of, your mileage may vary. If you are a regular listener to his podcast, you will recognize, even anticipate, some of the gags and rants, and may feel a little jaded. But to be Miss Brightside for a moment, you will also benefit from another layer of enjoyment, getting a peek at locations like Carolla’s real life former home (that underground bar, I sooo want that bar) and cameos from show favorites, most especially Carolla’s beautiful, aging, money-pit of a Labrador, Molly. I’m assuming she worked for scale.
This potential dichotomy of expectation is a reason that some the movie’s comedy might take an extra minute for general audiences to digest. David Alan Grier, a devisively popular recurring guest on “The Adam Carolla Podcast”, plays Adam’s more successful actor friend, about to launch a how-could-it-miss tv show about farming in Wisconsin called “Chocolate Milk”. The script allows for Grier to go into one of his podcast mainstays, his imitation of Maya Angelou, which is a delight no matter how often you hear it. The scene works, as does the onscreen friendship – Grier is funny and a Tony nominated actor. A later scene, however, with Grier doing a raunchy bit that also plays very well on the podcast, seems shoehorned in – in fact it is shown as a cut away because it really is superfluous.
For audiences both new and well educated, however, the movie mostly gets it right. The casting of the smaller roles is excellent – the smugly friendly desk clerks and randoms from the road have an authenticity that makes you believe Bruce’s frustration as they cockblock the simplest of pleasures. Bruce has a nice chemistry with his brainy daughter (Cynthy Wu), but I could have used a little more Ileana Douglas as his ex-wife and David Koechner as her obnoxious new beau.
And then there is Carolla himself. Perhaps the common wisdom going in would be in line with my earlier theory: if you are a fan, you’ll have a different experience with his work in Road Hard than if you are more used to a Paul Blart date night. Well, let’s say you may walk in with different expectations, but as an audience member, you’ll get the same satisfying result. Carolla performs much in the way of the aforementioned Seinfeld did on his program – though funny, he almost becomes the straight man in his own comedy. He gives off an air of being the sane center of the swirling madness, a funny guy just trying to get by, leaving the odd ball habits, weird wigs and dick jokes (ok, not all of the dick jokes) to the more broadly drawn characters around him. He may not be Olivier, but he doesn’t need to be. Especially around Farr, Road Hard gives Carolla a chance to light up (in more ways than one). In the end, you actually care about Bruce Madsen. And, as much as the real-life Carolla might rant about just wanting his film to be judged on a scale of zero to funny, this is an even bigger accomplishment.
Road Hard is available now through iTunes, Amazon and most video on demand platforms.
UK Culture Beasts: Adam Carolla will be appearing at the Bloomsbury Theatre, London, on September 10, 2015.