Balding, fiftysomething Eddie Pepitone is an actor, comedian, and podcaster, but his real art form is being Eddie Pepitone. Like Rodney Dangerfield, Jackie Mason, or Don Rickles before him, Pepitone is one of those gifted creatures who doesn’t necessarily need to say or do anything funny to get laughs, because he’s inveterately funny on a profound existential level. Pepitone looks and talks like an extra in a Bowery Boys movie. He’s a quintessential working-class New Yorker, perpetually apoplectic and at war with a cruel, unfeeling universe. But over the past few years, this old-school New Yorker has made a big name for himself as a Los Angeles alternative-comedy fixture skilled at navigating the tricky waters of new media via his “live-action cartoon” YouTube series Puddin’, his popular Twitter account (which he somehow manages to recycle extensively in his stand-up act without seeming lazy or obnoxious), and The Long Shot Podcast, which he appears on alongside Sean Conroy, Jamie Flam, and Amber Kenny. Comedy geeks and podcast nerds consequently have heard rumblings about The Bitter Buddha for months now; for hardcore comedy geeks, it’s liable to feel like old news before they see a single frame.
Steven Feinartz’s directorial debut eschews straight chronology in its abstract portrait of Pepitone coming into his own personally, professionally, and creatively in his 50s after struggling on the margins of show business for decades. Feinartz follows Pepitone from gig to gig and podcast to podcast as he prepares for a big show in New York, where his complicated father contemplates seeing Pepitone perform live for the first time in around a decade.
Onstage, Pepitone is a powder keg of barely controlled aggression, but the soulfulness in his eyes betrays an underlying gentleness that comes to the fore in scenes where he plays with his cats or talks about the simple joys of feeding pigeons. Pepitone is a riveting camera subject, a fascinating combination of light and dark, mercurial rage and tenderness. But the film’s attempts at stirring up Oedipal drama in its climax, while compelling, feel tacked-on. The Bitter Buddha strains a little too hard for dramatic heft, but it’s nevertheless a compelling, sweet, funny valentine to a comic’s comic and a true American original. The Bitter Buddha closes with Pepitone pondering whether he’s wasted his life by focusing on comedy rather than family, but everything that’s come before suggests that decision has led to a life that’s a triumph rather than a tragedy. Besides, Pepitone has a large and loving family; they just happen to be his worshipful fellow comedians rather than sons or daughters.