Conan O’Brien is a performer whose availability on a nightly basis is easy to take for granted. What goes into the entertainment he provides is a significant amount and the idea of a documentary that peels back the curtain into his life and work is vastly intriguing. Since Conan O’Brien Can’t Stop is about his life behind the scenes of his ‘Legally Prohibited From Being Funny on Television’ tour, there isn’t nearly as much of a glimpse into his creative world but rather a portrait of a frustrated artist making the most of his time between jobs. It’s still compelling, but it’s a bird of a much different feather.
The first thing that becomes obvious in Rodman Flenders’ film is that Conan’s work ethic and approach to his business is fueled by incredible passion and immediacy. The film’s title is apt, as O’Brien pushes himself and his staff to the edge to achieve material he deems worthy of his brand. He’s tireless and he expects the same from all around him. There’s a cynicism and ferocious undercurrent to the way he does this and there are times during the film where it’s difficult to know whether the man is serious or kidding. There are some tense moments, primarily as the show is mapped out. His writing staff and assistant take the brunt of his frustration. It’s to the point where one could speculate that despite his charming and consistently funny persona that there’s the soul of a tortured artist in Conan. More often than not the situation is diffused by the craziness present in the work environment or a few well-timed punches Conan delivers playfully to everyone. There’s probably an entire feature on the cutting room floor of O’Brien punching people, a fun frat-like exercise that serves almost as chapter stops in the film.
It’s also apparent from this film and the tour that Conan wants to be a rock star. He seems very at home as the center of attention singing and and dancing and with a guitar in his hand. He lives it up too. His energy and exuberance onstage is contagious and to the viewer, a bit tiring. He’s amassed the audience and wealth to be able to go on a self-serving tour and it’s obvious that he’s venting in the most big and creative way possible. It’s great for his fans but it’s better for Conan. There’s been a lot of ink about the Tonight Show fiasco and where it ultimately led to but Conan is not a victim. A lot of money changed hands and if there’s a business that will whittle a person down it’s the entertainment business. He did the right thing and took care of his staff before moving to a new show on TBS as soon as possible. In actuality this entire endeavor was simply a way to use the time [True story: I had a $100 ticket to this tour and was reminded by a friend about thirty minutes before the show started, and as a result toally missed it]. From what appears here, it looks as if the show was less about delivering the brand of humor that made Conan’s shows so memorable but rather explain the situation to his fans and allow for a lot of musical numbers. For many that may be enough but from these glimpses a lot of it feels a little slight. The music is right down the center of main street, feeling a little like the kind of stuff Jim Belushi and Dan Ackroyd used to do though it’s interesting to see guest performers like Eddie Vedder and Jim Carrey alongside Conan.
The main residual from the film is seeing the fatigue and access taking its toll on Conan. It’s obvious that the autographs and photographs and meet and greet requirements got out of hand. The last act of the film showcases O’Brien at the end of his rope, trying to put on a good face for his fans but once alone completely walling up and coming off as someone who’s out of gas. The film ultimately paints its subject as someone who bit off a little more than he could chew and it’s engaging at times but extremely uneven and there’s not enough of a consistent narrative to make it worth recommending for anything other than the ability to see a talented and funny man behind the scenes.
The main problem is the choice of material we’re seeing the backstory to. It’s not very interesting, not very entertaining, and does little to showcase Conan O’Brien as anything more than a busy guy we can’t identify with nearly as much as we thought we would.
Out of a Possible 5 Stars