Gerard Garilli, Edward John Socienski, Emily Esposito, Peter Panagos, Danny Lamego, Anthony Leks, Sal Garilli, Phyllis Socienski, Justine Garilli, Maria Marinaro, Kevin Williamson, Christina Cappelli, J.J. Pyle
Gerard Garilli, Melissa L. White
Adrian Toscano's Hard Laughter has arrived on Amazon Prime after a successful indie fest run that included a prize for lead Gerard Garilli for Best Actor at the Atlantic City Film Festival. Garilli stars as Justin Vilardo, a working-class comic committed to his craft and committed to one day being able to call himself a full-time comic. He's supported by his brother Vic (Danny Lamego), girlfriend Sylvia (Emily Esposito), loyal friends Bammy (Anthony Leks) and Danny (Edward John Socienski), though like just about every stand-up comic in the world he's got the naysayers including his parents (Sal Garilli and Phyllis Socienski).
There's a solid reason that Garilli picked up a best acting prize for his work here - he paints a compelling portrait of Justin, whom we're introduced to as a hard-working, good-hearted guy with a girlfriend he loves and a solid foundation of friends and family of choice. Garilli lets us see the fractures in Justin's psyche from a homelife that outwardly may appear supportive but inward is often overly critical and unsupportive. Justin clearly loves it on stage, at least partly, because the audiences love him.
When Justin meets Lars (Peter Panagos), a local talent agent who promises success and connections and appears capable of delivering, Justin's life begins to change for the better. This Jersey-based production has enough grit to it that you can practically feel it between your teeth. Garilli's Justin isn't some pretty boy wannabe. He's a working-class joe who you can't help but keep rooting for even as his long-desired success takes hold of him almost to the point of choking the life out of him and his relationships.
Garilli co-wrote Hard Laughter with Melissa L. White, both of them immersing the story in urban realism without ever resorting to unnecessary histrionics. Hard Laughter isn't so much a cautionary tale as it is a richly authentic story about one man's struggle to maintain himself and his world when he seems to have gotten everything he'd ever wanted personally and professionally. I'd be hard-pressed to call Hard Laughter an upbeat tale, Garilli and White favor honesty and realism over fairytale endings. It's to their credit, however, that you keep yourself hanging with Justin throughout it all.
In addition to Garilli's terrific performance, Hard Laughter benefits from an absolutely top-notch ensemble cast with particularly strong performances from Panagos, who wisely avoids anything resembling caricature, and Esposito, whose story arc you can feel coming a mile away but who brings it to life with honesty and gut. Anthony Leks and Edward John Socienski are also quite strong among the other key players.
Hard Laughter is occasionally hindered by the usual low-budget indie challenges, most notably an occasionally tinny sound mix that makes certain lines lack the emotional resonance needed to really deliver. For the most part, these are minor hindrances for a film that truly delivers throughout its briskly paced 80-minute running time.
Stefan Swanson's original music complements the film quite nicely, while Toscano's directorial work here is strong along with editing that allows us to really linger with characters and feel their experiences.
While Hard Laughter isn't the kind of film you're going to find in a multi-plex, it is the kind of film tailor-made for late-night television courtesy of Amazon, Netflix or any number of streaming outlets. Fortunately, you can catch it for yourself now on Amazon Prime.
Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic