.Review: ‘Buddy Solitaire’

A struggling comic helps others with standup in this film by local director

Standup comedy for better mental health is the unconventional recipe explored in ‘Buddy Solitaire.’

Maybe if the familiar brick wall standing behind comedians were riddled with bullet holes, they’d pick their material with more discernment: “Choose your next witticism carefully…it may be your last!” San Jose director Kuang Lee’s Buddy Solitaire starts with a masochistic L.A. comedian about to self-destruct.

First, Buddy (Brandon J. Sornberger) moans about the pleasure of headlining on a Tuesday night to losers, then he detonates the very old and very bad joke about how they define a virgin girl out in the rural states. In shame the next morning, after pounding his head against the table—”ruining the ol’ money-maker,” as he tells his appalled, newly pregnant girlfriend—Buddy decides to get a real job. He takes up work as a therapist at Maple Hills rehab center. He teaches the patients there how to use comedy to heal themselves. They’re unimpressed by this failed insult comedian, and haze him, leading to dropped references to Dangerous Minds and Dead Poets Society. Neither of those films mentioned is a huge favorite in this corner, but Lee’s twist is that the back stories of the patients are grist for material for Buddy’s routine, even as the patients are learning to craft standup routines of their own. The way Lee sets it up here, comedy is like jazz in Miles Davis’ definition—whether a note is sour or not all depends on the next note played.

The cast is sharp, with Leann Lei quite serious as the queen bee of the ward, getting help because she burned down her husband’s house (“She Left-Eye’d him!” Buddy exclaims) and Shaun Clay as the patient coping with voices in his head. Another standout is the sardonic head of the center, Tyson (Garret Sato, an actor usually relegated to gangster roles), facing Buddy with the contempt he deserves.

Lee was born in Taiwan, raised in Southern California, went to UCLA and Loyola Marymount, and then moved here to work on industrial films for Intel; down south he’d done TV promotional spots and a short documentary titled Eastside, about skateboarders. In 2011 he was having a tough time: “I had relationship trouble, couldn’t find a job, and then my cat died. That was the worst, the last part. I tried exercise and meditation, and then I took a class at L.A. City College on comedy. It was hard—my jokes bombed at first, but it turned out to be better than therapy. The border between humor and madness is very thin—the career of Robin Williams is proof of that.”

Lee took a break from his regular work to do the 17-day shoot in L.A.; a friend who ran a temporarily vacated youth center loaned him the facility so he could do the clinic scenes.

The most formidable Sally Kirkland is Buddy’s pushy mother who’d had a comedy career of her own decades ago: imagine an evil Phyllis Diller. Kirkland shows why she once vied with Holly Hunter, Meryl Streep and Glenn Close once for an Oscar. Aged ladies swearing is always comedy gold, but there’s no audience-sopping twinkle in Kirkland’s fierceness as this profane mother who, in Buddy’s words always was “hitting me too hard, or holding me too close.”

“Sally was great,” Lee says. “Obviously she has a lot of talent, but when it came to playing an extreme and flawed character, she had no fear. She wasn’t afraid to go to the edge.”

Lee just finished production of his next film, Best Mom, shot in Orange County. “It’s similar to Buddy Solitaire, in that it’s about the power of comedy.” In it, Donna Mills of Knots Landing is a mother who joins an improv troupe to bond with her daughter (Krista Allen). He has another production slated after that, Caravan, a thriller that boomerangs into sci-fi territory, to be shot in the Interstate 5 badlands between L.A. and San Jose. In the meantime, Buddy Solitaire‘s musing on the angst of comedy will occupy viewers waiting for the new season of Lady Dynamite to begin Nov 10.

Buddy Solitaire
UR, 90 Mins.
Hulu and Amazon Prime

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