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Film Review: 'Harmontown'

Much better known than most sitcom writers, partly for the wrong reasons -- notably his frequent clashes with co-workers and resultant firings -- Dan Harmon has a die-hard fanbase from NBC's "Community," which at one point was saved from the ax by a passionate fan campaign. When he himself got axed from the now-successful show for too many temperamental flareups, Harmon took his own not-quite-standup, not-quite-talkshow podcast on the road to 20 cities -- basically in order to feel loved. "Harmontown" chronicles that tour, charting the map of Harmon's troubled soul (as does the same-named podcast) in a prolonged self-exposure that is by turns aptly amusing, poignant, indulgent and discomfiting. Neil Berkeley's feature will appeal primarily to the previously converted in home formats and probably limited theatrical exposure.

Both "Community" (since 2009) and the once-monthly, now-weekly "Harmontown" podcast (since 2011) have attracted a fanatical fanbase of "Harmenians" who identify with the compulsively fault-revealing, wanting-to-be-liked, self-absorbed, pop-culture-obsessed "army of nerds" personified by the sitcom's characters and by Harmon himself. Pic briefly recaps his career up to that point, from his Midwestern sketch-comedy roots to the failed (but cult-adored) 1999 Jack Black series pilot "Heat Vision and Jack," and Comedy Central's successful "The Sarah Silverman Show," which he co-created. Silverman recounts her plight here: loving Harmon's work, yet finding him so impossible a personality that she finally fired him to save the show, while retaining his writing partner Rob Schrab, which drove a wedge between them.

Harmon pitched new series ideas around town until "Community" got picked up. For all its acclaim and devoted viewers, however, the show was a trouble magnet, mostly infamously in terms of the well-publicized strife between Harmon and cast member Chevy Chase. At the end of the third season, Harmon was replaced as showrunner, prompting subsequent cries that the fourth season was a major letdown. (More recently, he regained his position, while Chase left the program.)

It was amid that bottom-hitting controversy -- once again being fired from his own show -- that Harmon decided he needed "to feel like I do something for a living" by taking his podcast on the road. That meant three weeks in a bus and on club stages with fellow regulars Erin McGathy (his fiancee), ever-genial "comptroller" Jeff B. Davis, and Spencer Crittenden. The latter was a depressed, withdrawn twentysomething fan living in his parents' suburban home who somehow became an essential show element by playing "Dungeons & Dragons" with the audience; for him, the resultant moderate celebrity is particularly mind-warping.

Starting in Phoenix, the entirely freeform touring show flounders and flourishes from night to night. Harmon is nonplussed by the fact that patrons seem to love whatever he does, even when he gets so drunk on a fan's moonshine that he doesn't remember his actions the next day. Tortured self-analysis is his favorite poison onstage and off, with his fellow travelers sometimes feeling the whip end of his mood swings. ("I can be incredibly cruel," he says.) Heightening the venture's precariousness is the pressure to finish writing two series pilots for separate networks that he really should have completed before hitting the road.

All this is entertaining and fairly insightful (though Harmon at one point admits, "I've never made so many shame-based edits"). The extent to which it's hilarious and revelatory, however, may depend on viewers' degree of prior intimacy with all things Harmonic. For more casual spectators, "Harmontown" -- the docu, the podcast, the state of mind -- may seem an interesting place to visit, but you wouldn't want to live there. Not with (as he and others variously put it) "a giant, rich, hairy toddler," "an ill-tempered perfectionist," "the Oprah of ineffectual white people" or (even) "a nerd full of love" calling all the shots.

Interviews with "Community" cast members, past collaborators (but definitely not Chase) and others, plus archival clips, diversify the mostly verite-style docu. Assembly is shipshape.

2014 Variety Media, LLC, a subsidiary of Penske Business Media; Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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