Obsessive, Intriguing ‘Conan O’Brien Can’t Stop’

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CHICAGO – It’s the movie poster that says it all. The familiar red-headed talk show host, now bearded, resting his head against an ever-present microphone. The show must go on for “Conan O’Brien Can’t Stop.”

What is interesting about this backstage documentary and performance film is that it’s part two of a two part story. This is O’Brien after part one, after he left NBC’s “The Tonight Show” (for those under a rock, O’Brien quit the The Tonight Show hosting gig rather than alter the format to accommodate NBC’s need to get Jay Leno back to the time slot. Leno returned to The Tonight Show). Part two is his salvation. Banned contractually from television for six months, O’Brien mounts a traveling show where he does his schtick, plays his guitar and feeds his obsessive need for feeding an audience.

The documentary and performance film follows all the steps in the process to produce the show, then goes on the road with O’Brien, sidekick Andy Richter and members of his old Tonight Show band, most familiar being Richie ‘La Bamba’ Rosenberg. Along the way O’Brien exposes himself as both a temperamental diva-like child and a dedicated artist who appreciates his sense of give-and-take associated with making show, interacting with his fans accordingly and lovingly.

’Conan O’Brien Can’t Stop’ Exposes Both Sides of One Man
’Conan O’Brien Can’t Stop’ Exposes Both Sides of One Man
Photo credit: Abamorama

As city after city clicks off, O’Brien is shown backstage, maniacally preparing for each grueling night along the way. He complains, schmoozes, greets celebrity friends and looks perpetually tired. But the idea is that he wouldn’t have it any other way. He simply “can’t stop.”

It is fascinating to experience the “real” Conan O’Brien in this film. This document can be used in future generations as both show business history and a case study for psychology students. Director Rodman Flender picks up on the negative vibe Conan fairly often, but nothing in this star attitude is overtly mean or unfair. Conan is just as difficult on himself as he is on the associates around him. In fact, he seems to punish himself more, especially when demanding something from the staff producing the show. Typical Catholic guilt, compounded by the news that Conan is half Jewish (was he kidding?).

That support staff comes off stiff and mostly uninteresting, especially the usually ebullient Andy Richter. Richter left the old NBC “Late Night” show as Conan’s sidekick because he got bored with it. When he came back to The Tonight Show to resume those duties, he seemed neutered. That attitude is prevalent in the Can’t Stop tour. Richter blends into the wallpaper, occasionally sitting with O’Brien as if they are fulfilling a contractual obligation. The awkward hug at the end of the tour doesn’t do them any favors either.

The celebrity friends come off as odd backstage. Jon Hamm and longtime companion Jennifer Westfeldt (”Kissing Jessica Stein”) are there, is Jon Hamm required to be in every film in 2011? Jim Carrey can’t stop talking about himself, Stephen Colbert and Jon Stewart expose how the sausage is made in preparing a bit. Are these friends or “friends”? The film makes an argument for both ends of the spectrum.

The Man Meets the Mission: ’Conan O’Brien Can’t Stop’
The Man Meets the Mission: ’Conan O’Brien Can’t Stop’
Photo credit: Abamorama

But what is endearing is O’Brien himself, conquering his own confusion about moving on from The Tonight Show by literally fracking the circumstance through the sweat of live performance. He has a pretty decent singing voice, performing an odd list of old timey rock standards. The bits from the show, as well as the spontaneity that occurs in the strange real life of O’Brien, produces both real and uncomfortable laughs. This is “The Office” of celebrity performance profiles.

When I was in New York City a few years back I took in both the David Letterman and Conan O’Brien programs. Outside Letterman, there were dozens of interns annoyingly reminding everyone to “laugh.” A couple nights later at O’Brien’s taping, Conan himself warmed up the crowd by hysterically dancing with a dude in the audience. That personal experience, along with this film, gives as much insight about the man nicknamed Coco as any TV chat show.

”Conan O’Brien Can’t Stop” has a limited release, including Chicago, on June 24th. See local listings for theaters and show times. Featuring Conan O’Brien, Andy Richter, Jim Carrey, Stephen Colbert, Jon Stewart, Jon Hamm and Eddie Vedder. Directed by Rodman Flender. Rated “R”

HollywoodChicago.com senior staff writer Patrick McDonald

Senior Staff Writer

© 2011 Patrick McDonald, HollywoodChicago.com

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