Back in 2011, director Joe Swanberg made perhaps his most minimalist mumblecore film to date with Uncle Kent, a collaboration with SpongeBob and Adventure Time writer-artist Kent Osborne, in which Osborne plays a pathetic, lovelorn version of himself. The movie didn’t have much of a plot or structure, and its characters weren’t especially engaging or erudite. A short running time and an amiable tone kept Uncle Kent from ever becoming a chore, but aside from one hilariously awkward ménage à trois scene and a poignant final shot, the film was so slight that it almost dared the audience to get anything out of watching.
There’s a sharper point to Uncle Kent 2, although the sequel’s also something of an endurance test, in ways the original never was. Once again, Osborne plays “Kent Osborne,” but a slightly more realistic version this time out: respected in his field, and even well-known by some for his starring role in Uncle Kent. But nearly everything else about the new film is purposefully absurd. Most of the action (if that’s the right word) takes place at San Diego Comic-Con, where Osborne flirts successfully with multiple women, whenever he’s not sitting on panels or otherwise conducting animation industry business. Throughout, the artist philosophizes about “the singularity,” and explores the possibility that he’s actually living inside a computer simulation. Gradually, reality around him begins to deteriorate into glitchy chaos.
Swanberg makes a couple of brief appearances in Uncle Kent 2, including at the start, where he shoots down Osborne’s original pitch for a post-apocalyptic sequel. (Swanberg grumbles that franchises represent everything that’s wrong with the movie business; Osborne counters that only a philistine could hate the likes of Gremlins 2 and The Godfather Part II.) Stepping behind the camera this time out is Todd Rohal, an indie film oddball best known for The Guatemalan Handshake and The Catechism Cataclysm. Rohal brings an “anything goes” quality to Uncle Kent 2, throwing in everything from a “Weird Al” Yankovic cameo to a nude underwater ballet—with a bare-assed Osborne at the center—to the occasional bit of animation by Adventure Time creator Pendleton Ward.
As a result of all that, this movie has less in common with mumblecore than it does with “anti-comedy”—that mini-movement of experimenters and performance artists who mock comic clichés and test even their fans’ patience with obnoxious stunts and surrealism. Uncle Kent 2 has plenty of elements obviously designed to grate and disturb, such as the repeated use of the peppy Swing Out Sister hit “Breakout” on the soundtrack. It also includes several interludes that wink at showbiz corniness, including a sequence where Osborne and a female fan drink an invisibility potion and then immediately yank off a middle-aged slob’s toupee and tear open his wife’s shirt, as though acting out a scene from an old teen sex comedy. The film even mocks its own self-indulgence, by building its big climactic sequence around Osborne masturbating.
Some of Uncle Kent 2 is funny; some of it’s just silly. (As the saying goes: “Your mileage may vary.”) As with its predecessor, there doesn’t seem to have been much effort made to shape the movie into anything more that a collection of scenes, indifferently assembled. But there are more ideas in Uncle Kent 2 than in the original—even if the film’s main arguments amount to the none-too-revelatory “sequels are hard” and “San Diego Comic-Con is exhausting.” And like Uncle Kent, the follow-up has an underlying sincerity, rooted in Osborne’s quietly upbeat persona. Toward the end of the picture, when the screen is digitally warping and the world’s falling apart, the hero insists that there’s no reason to give in to despair because, “We’re here, we’re alive, and we should make the most of it.” He doesn’t seem to be joking. But even if he is, he’s not wrong.