With a stage presence that suggests a combination of Richard Lewis, Ethel Merman, and a raving derelict, stream-of-consciousness comedian Reno paces the stage like a street-corner prophet, belting out breathless sociopolitical monologues to anyone within shouting range. Not long after the embers cooled on the World Trade Center site after Sept. 11, Reno brought her edgy routine to comedy-club audiences ready for a humorous response to the changing tenor of the nation. Recorded at New York's sparsely appointed La MaMa nightclub on Dec. 18, 2001, the 75-minute concert film Reno: Rebel Without A Pause finds the leftist comedian making alternately abrasive and incisive remarks about the issues of the day, from the personal to the global. Unreleased theatrically until more than a year later, the film loses some of the immediacy it must have possessed at the time, when comedy outlets were reluctant to say anything provocative about the attacks and their repercussions. Back then, it must have been cathartic (or, to some, infuriating) to hear Reno debunk the heroes of the day as dolts (George W. Bush), fascists (John Ashcroft), and opportunistic micromanagers (Rudy Giuliani), but today, these attitudes have returned to the mainstream. The only anecdotes that still fly are rooted more in Reno's quirky personal experiences and observations than her broadsides on American foreign policy and leadership. Instantly identifiable as a New Yorker in her pugnacious manner and adenoidal tone, Reno witnessed the fall of the WTC towers from her nearby Manhattan apartment building, and her memories vividly recapture the day's surreal quality. Though the sound of the first plane crashing jostled her from a deep slumber, the habitual night owl recalls falling back asleep until friends called her answering machine, pleading for her to get up, all reflexively apologizing for ringing before 1 p.m. She talks about the weird sensation of watching the towers burning outside and on network news simultaneously, a rumor about terrorists with machetes walled up in a local bistro, and a telephone conversation in which her mother, reassured of her immediate health, asks "What else is new?" Once the material moves on to the aftermath, Reno unleashes more pointed barbs on topics such as the war in Afghanistan, the "American Taliban," and hawkish broadcasters on the cable networks. Perhaps because her routine is partly improvised, her delivery seems fresher than most, but a few emotional moments are entirely scripted, such as the pause where she wells up to Celine Dion's recording of "God Bless America." Director Nancy Savoca (Dogfight, Household Saints) stays out of the way most of the time–her refusal to cut to audience-reaction shots owes something to Stop Making Sense's Jonathan Demme, whom she thanks in the end credits–but she slows down, zooms in, or repeats shots to underline effects. For a comedian who thrives on spontaneity, the heart of Reno's act seems conspicuously canned.
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