Patton Oswalt is an addict. He’s not the whisky-swilling, pill-swallowing, or coke-snorting type that would make for a great Lifetime movie. No, his vice can be found in a dark room filled with shady characters, hushed murmurs, sticky floors, and the smell of burned popcorn – the cinema.
For most people, movies offer a chance to escape. For Patton, however, the celluloid projected on screen would serve as a compulsion that would dictate his schedule and limit his interactions for years on end.
In Patton Oswalt’s second book, Silver Screen Fiend, we learn that despite having what some would call an already successful career as a stand-up comedian and a then-writer for Mad TV in 1995, he wasn’t satisfied. Embittered by his contemporaries who were seemingly having more artistically satisfying and successful careers, a double feature of Sunset Boulevard and Ace in the Hole at the New Beverly Cinema would be Patton’s first hit of a new drug that would serve a “day spa” for his depression.
With the benefit of his “$5-a night film school,” Patton Oswalt is able to consume over 250 movies in just a few short years all while dutifully checking off his conquests in his three favorite film guides. The mind-boggling number of films (which he graciously catalogs for us) doesn’t even include rentals or those broadcast on television, no doubt contributing to the encyclopedic knowledge of popular culture he is known to reference on stage. This book goes on to follow the self-professed “sprocket fiend” as he further ascends the entertainment landscape and the Los Angeles comedy scene in the late ‘90’s from buzzworthy performances at Largo to his own silver screen debut in Down Periscope and sitcom stardom on The King of Queens. Throughout this journey the reader sees Patton struggle through his insecurities as a comedian and actor, while appreciating the art that seems just out of reach.
Oswalt is proving himself to be a formidable storyteller, and the stories he pens are as eclectic as the movies he devours. Highlights include vignettes about cringe-worthy stand-up sets, the author’s reaction to the much-anticipated The Phantom Menace, and an attempt to perform the near mythological Jerry Lewis debacle, The Day the Clown Cried (if you’re unfamiliar with this, do a google search now!). Patton has ditched the disjointed storytelling seen in his first novel Zombie, Spaceship Wasteland and replaced it instead with a much more linear and fluid style of writing. Verbose at times, the book also suffers from a liberal use of distracting footnotes. You don’t have to be a cinephile to enjoy this book, although it certainly helps. If nothing else, through his narrative, Oswalt gives a daunting checklist of great and not-so-great works of art.
Though the book doesn’t mirror Oswalt’s stand-up comedy, there’s plenty of humor to be found within. And, if you’re a fan of the comedian himself, this book offers considerable insight into the man behind the jokes. Silver Screen Fiend might not make you laugh out loud like Tina Fey’s Bossy Pants, and it’s not a fluid, side-splitting memoir in the style of David Sedaris. What Oswalt does deliver is equal parts memoir, film guide, and love song to the silver screen. As a struggling comedian coming to terms with both failure and success, envy and acceptance, Oswalt echoes the voice within all of us that desires to be something great and not just sit in the audience to watch our lives unfold.
Preston Burt knows the lure of the celluloid himself having managed both a Blockbuster the local 4-screen cinema in Oxford, MS during college. A freelance writer, he has previously written for Paste, RETRO Magazine, and the Screen Crush Network. Follow him at @nocashvalue80.