The power and wizardry of documentary films lie in their ability to open a window to a part of the world — be it Antarctica, Aleppo, a mental institution, or a chef’s kitchen — that you’d have no other way to see. And on that measure, director Neil Berkeley’s remarkable, fascinating, totally unexpected new film takes audiences on one of the strangest journeys of any documentary in recent memory: Inside the life of notorious screech comedian Gilbert Gottfried.
As surprising as Gilbert will be to people feel ambivalently about Gottfried (if any of those people exist), it’s even more shocking for big fans of the comic, who will be plastered by shock while watching him reveal himself onscreen. (Start at the 18 minute mark of this typically insane 1999 clip from Howard Stern’s radio show to hear how Gilbert talked about his “pathetic” and “lonely” private life.)
The film opens with the 62-year-old Gottfried shuffling around his $3 million New York City apartment, speaking in a low-monotone voice while talking to his wife and two young kids. Over the course of the next 96 minutes, Berkeley gains amazingly intimate access to Gottfried’s psyche.
This relates to his comedy stylings, of which Gottfried remarks, “The worst thing you could say to me is, ‘Don’t joke about that.'” The movie chronicles his too-soon 9/11 joke, which formed the basis for the 2005 documentary The Aristocrats, and the controversy surrounding his tweets reacting to the 2011 Japanese tsunami, which nearly ended his career. But in examining his defiance as a stand-up and the masochistic way in which he thrives on audience hostility, Gilbert plays as an incisive portrait of a self-abusing outcast. (Gilbert has already been compared, deservingly, to Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work.)
It’s also frequently hilarious, if you’re on Gottfried’s wavelength. Much is devoted to what he calls “the danger of the moment” — and one incredible sequence depicts the comic encountering a bizarre hotel convention of people cosplaying in war uniforms. You can practically see his comic adrenaline spiking when he meets a gaggle dressed as Nazis. “Heil five,” he giggles while greeting them.
And the film is also genuinely touching, especially in how in depicts Gottfried’s relationship with one of his sisters, Arlene, a NYC photographer and one-time gospel singer. A moment near the end of the film, when Gilbert talks about his now-deceased parents, will move audiences to tears. Believe that.
Check out the movie’s exclusive poster (photographed by Paul Mobley) above. Gilbert is premiering Thursday at the Tribeca Film Festival.