As a general rule with these reviews I write, as has been the case ever since I began posting them in late 2004, I would only write them for movies I have seen in a theatre in their original theatrical release. The documentary / comedy special Kathy Griffin: A Hell of a Story is kind of a different beast, or at least a middle-ground one: I did indeed see this in a theatre, but only as a one-time-only Fathom Events screening. It doesn’t matter what I say about it, you won’t have any opportunity to go to a theatre to see for yourself.
In the end, it hardly matters. Presumably this standup movie will eventually be available some other way soon enough, if not streaming then available digitally somewhere for purchase. And the only relevant information there is for a reader right now is this: if you’re a Kathy Griffin fan, you’ll likely have a great time watching this. If not, you won’t be missing anything by skipping it. And that last part is not even directed at the deranged Trump supporters who have sent her countless death threats; their propensity to either ignore or hate-watch her goes without saying. I’m even talking about the neutral observer, who might even agree that she was given a raw deal. Kathy Griffin: A Hell of a Story is straight up fan service, through and through.
The film features a long prologue that lasts maybe twenty minutes, itself much more of a short documentary about Kathy Griffin and her career immediately following her infamous 2017 photo holding up a fake, bloody Donald Trump head. It depicts Griffin’s world tour she took when she could not book any U.S. gigs, and frankly, this portion of the film is insanely contrived.
It pains me to have to say this. I count myself among Kathy Grffin’s longtime, loyal fans, and that’s what makes the beginning of this film all the more disappointing. This is a woman who has never made any bones about the hustle that has always been her career, and I still respect her for it; I don’t fault her for milking everything she can for all it’s worth. But there are moments here that just plain feel disingenuous. Does she really need to turn the camera on herself when she’s supposed to be emotionally at rock bottom? Does she not realize that when a move she makes is transparently in the service of a money-making venture, the “emotion” on display rather loses its impact?
Griffin occasionally has her boyfriend holding the camera, talking behind it. In one scene, she’s broken down crying, apparently on an airplane between cities, and he consoles her from behind the camera. It’s entirely possible what he says to her was not rehearsed — or at least the product of being directed — but, his delivery sure makes it sound like it was.
I did not realize as I watched this that most of it was just a film of one of Kathy Griffin’s standup theater gigs, basically a film version of yet another one of her record-breaking number of standup specials. Watching this extended documentary prologue, I expected most of the whole movie to be this, perhaps intercut with clips of her stage performance. I really began to worry about how good this movie was really going to be. The overall quality — the cinematography, the editing in particular — is really not of the caliber of a theatrically released film. It immediately became apparent why this was a one-time-only theatrical presentation. It would have been far more appropriate on cable, but of course Griffin mentions at every opportunity how she still has no bidders for TV standup specials anymore.
But! Much to my relief, the documentary portion ends, and A Hell of a Story moves into straightforward standup footage of a performance at a single, Santa Monica venue, and in Griffin’s own, spectacularly singular way, she does just that: tell a hell of a story. And she does it incredibly well.
The “standup special” portion of the film is a hard turn from the documentary stuff, where Griffin may be much more obviously rehearsed, but now in her element, she comes across as genuine. She’s also very funny, and she gets into all manner of detail about all the crazy shit that’s happened to her. It’s this part, which lasts much longer, which makes it required viewing for the loyal Kathy Griffin fan. She is a comic whose many signature traits include rambling, and yet she always manages to circle back to the point or the story at hand. Her complete set is a lot more structured than it might seem at first glance.
She even gets into a significant bit about hanging out in Sydney with Stevie Nicks — a star I have personally long idolized — and Chrissie Hynde. It’s one of the most delightful stories she tells, among many delightful stories included here. It does include bits about Stevie Nicks being among the few people to come to her defense, as a whole lot of this show does — and it’s well known how far more people Kathy Griffin thought were her friends either abandoned her or actually went out of their way to twist the knife.
Kathy Griffin is transparently a born performer, and it’s plain to see the stage is where she is meant to be. Hopefully it will continue to be for decades to come — even though she’s already 58 years old at the time of this recording. It’s genuinely a joy to watch her doing both what she loves and what she does best, which is making people laugh through observations of the ridiculousness of our world. When it comes to A Hell of a Story, though, what she clearly is not born to be is a documentarian. Or perhaps to be more fair, director Troy Miller isn’t. This film starts like a TV special lower-mid-level quality, with some things onscreen that are strangely suspect. Thankfully, getting through it is well worth the wait, because the complete standup show that follows, for anyone who has gone out of their way to watch it, is something that truly delivers everything you could want from it.