Palooka-faced Danny Hoch is a twentysomething actor, writer and comic cameleon whose most recent one man show has been made into a full length feature now going into theatrical release. In the tradition of Eddie Murphy, Whoopie Goldberg but, most reminiscently, Richard Pryor, Hoch morphs through a succession of characters in the course of his shows while offering a combination of social comment, laughs and pathos.
Though both white and Jewish, Hoch clearly has embraced the culture of young black America. The film is set to a propulsive hip hop soundtrack and three of the eight characters the performer inhabits here are whites aspiring to gangsta status. In one of the picture’s early and funniest sequences, a slacker living in the attic of his parents’ suburban home fantasizes that he’s a famous rapper trading showbiz banter with Jay Leno on The Tonight Show. It’s an hilarious bit in which he shrugs off his reality with the straight-faced rationalization “Even though I live in Montana, I got the ghetto in my heart every day, dude.” Just as Rupert Pupkin’s did in a similar situation, the kid’s mother continually interrupts his reveries with shouts from offstage. She reminds her son that he’ll be late for work if he doesn’t leave soon. Mortified, Hoch explains to his phantom host “I don’t have to work at Hardy’s because I’m a millionaire f*****g rapper, you know what I’m saying? But I just like to help out my community every now and then.”
In other sequences he’s equally convincing whether as a prison inmate dying of AIDS, a 19 year old Bronx community college student left with brain damage and speech difficulties by his mother’s use of crack when she was pregnant, a jailed street vendor who rails against the injustice of a system which incarcerates him for peddling Simpson (both Bart and O.J.) t-shirts but finds it adorable when little white kids sell lemonade by the roadside or, most poignantly perhaps, as a troubled upstate prison guard forced to seek therapy for his rage problem after going medieval on a prisoner. It’s a haunting scene that reveals the deapth of Hoch’s talent both as an actor and a verbal acrobat. Scared, suspicious and completely out of his element, the character doesn’t know what to make of it when his female shrink asks what seems to him an arbitrary series of questions. “What is this,” he snaps, “some sort of casual, impromptu probe into my s**t?”
Hoch and codirector Mark Benjamin shot the film in a variety of settings- on the street, on various stages and in real penitentaries for audiences of real and clearly respectful inmates- and wove the different performances together into a wild, rapid-fire collage that’s as fiercely funny, original and provocative as anything I’ve seen on a screen in a good long while.
Hoch is an artist of uncommon humor, intellect, presence and humanity. If he is not very big very soon, there truly is no justice in the world. If I were Jay Leno, I’d be picking up the phone right about now. For real.