Maybe this review is more about me than about comedian Conan O’Brien, but I really couldn’t get past the odor of self-congratulation emanating from nearly every scene in Conan O’Brien Can’t Stop. Director Rodman Flender’s backstage account follows O’Brien and company on a 32-city performance tour, the one O’Brien put together last year after his separation from NBC. That separation, nicely compensated but no doubt embarrassing to O’Brien (who lost out to Jay Leno, timeslot-wise), prevented the comedian and talk show host from doing any TV, radio or Web-based entertaining for six months.
Here’s what the film is not: Flender’s film isn’t a court biography, exactly. It’s not a blatant whitewash. It certainly isn’t afraid of making O’Brien look like an insecure bully (welcome to comedy) or boundlessly self-praising (“I’m the least entitled person I know”), when he isn’t being harsh on himself and those around him (again, welcome to comedy).
He’s so good at his job in so many ways: quick on his feet, fast with a comeback, able to simultaneously defuse and stoke tension in a roomful of writers with a single wisecrack. Yet as Flender captures the preparation and execution of this live variety act, O’Brien’s bristly demands for “a simple piece of grilled fish” or a conversation with a fan in a wheelchair (“You got a raw deal,” the fan says) begin to accumulate, and the whole thing becomes a sort of “Song of Myself” for needy multimillionaire comics at work and play.
O’Brien dances a thin line between contempt and enthusiasm; he’s like a chorus kid who can’t stop “delivering” (the title isn’t lying) but whose aggression finds some intriguing channels. I still like O’Brien, and I like sidekick Andy Richter, and I admire O’Brien’s wit and versatility. But I wonder if Conan O’Brien Can’t Stop may give Team Leno an inadvertent sympathy edge.
Conan O’Brien Can’t Stop (R) ★★☆☆☆