NEW ORLEANS -- It's hard to identify anyone in Hollywood with a cooler image than Vince Vaughn. Last night at the New Orleans Film Festival, he showed he has genuine heart, too.
Vaughn and his producing partner in crime, Peter "You'll shoot your eye out" Billingsley, hurried into Canal Place Cinemas to promote their new concert documentary, "Vince Vaughn's Wild West Comedy Tour: 30 Cities in 30 Days - Hollywood to the Heartland." The documentary is long on both title and laughs. It also provides a refreshingly honest and humble examination of the insecurities comedians face in taking their acts to new audiences and new heights.
Vaughn plays the tour's emcee, introducing his stable of talent to auditoriums from California to Texas to Ohio to Illinois. Joining him and Billingsley are comedians John Caparulo, Ahmed Ahmed, Bret Ernst and Sebastian Maniscalco and actors Keir O'Connell (the "gay guy"from "Wedding Crashers"), Jon Favreau and the ever-awkward Justin Long.
All except Favreau make the unwise but amusing decision to travel the country on a tour bus, bunks stacked on top of each other, beer bottles and junk strewn everywhere, and all travelers sharing a single toilet.
"You started to feel like you were being Federal Expressed from the next show to the next show," Vince told the audience Friday night during a post-screening Q&A.
In the documentary, highlights from their stage acts are almost all funny, and often gut-bustingly so. The bits are often foul-mouthed and crude, but also endearingly self-effacing.
After the screening, an audience member asked Vaughn why the featured comedy wasn't political, implying the film might have edited out any controversy.
Vince responded by saying a lot of the featured comedy "straddled the line" between political and personal, and that his intent in making the film was, by and large, personal. "Laughing should always bring us together," he said. "So much comedy now is so dividing and acidic."
He drew a comparison to everyone's memory of that kid who was teased in grade school and made to cry. "That never felt good, seeing those tears."
What's most rewarding about this film is that the abundant laughs are secondary to the compelling portraits of the comedians. Cameras stick close to them backstage before and after sets. You see them getting angry about hecklers, their own fumbled words, botched tellings of jokes and what they perceive as near "suicidal" breakdowns in craft.
You see Ahmed Ahmed, an Egyptian, talk about how the stage and post-9/11 xenophobia has basically forced him to tell jokes about being Arab and too frequently suspected as a terrorist. You don't really know if he's telling the truth, but you can sense he's not lying when he confesses that comedians are all messes and joke about their insecurities to take ownership over them.
You also see Sebastian Maniscalco, who's been asked to come out on tour by Vaughn as a break from waiting tables in Hollywood. The film nearly turns this cliche into schmaltz by keeping the camera on him just before they take the stage for night 30 in Chicago. The comedians gather around in a circle, and Maniscalco gradually breaks down into a blubbering baby. He wants to stay on the road forever. He's grateful to Vaughn for the big break, and Vaughn, showing a gentle, brotherly, nurturing side, just holds Miniscalco's shoulder while he gets choked up and they all get teary-eyed. It's a corny moment, but bravely honest.
Undoubtedly meaningful to many in the New Orleans audience was the tour's time frame. As the tour was pushing into Texas, Hurricane Rita was surging up the Gulf. They were forced to move the tour away from evacuation zones, and Vaughn and the gang decided to donate proceeds from many of their concerts to hurricane relief.
It was a small gesture, providing evacuees with money, and in many cases, a free night of entertainment. But the gesture was shown to be heartfelt as the comedians at first begrudgingly headed to a campsite filled with evacuees and ultimately came away learning how fortunate they were to be able to tour the country in the luxuries of a dirty tour bus.
On Friday, Vaughn was also asked if he would change anything about the comedy tour if he were to do it again. Besides scheduling a night off every once in a while, "Nothing. That's the thing about making documentaries. It is what it is."
That willingness to let it be might be Vaughn's key to maintaining a grip on a genuine cool celebrity image. He might, in truth, not be an image. Vince Vaughn just might be who he is. Funny. Charismatic. And warm if we allow him to be.
P.S. If anybody ends up seeing this documentary, let's talk later about the Dwight Yoakam/Bakersfield segment. Yoakam's king!