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Review: It's true, 'Conan O'Brien Can't Stop'

By Mark Rabinowitz, Special to CNN
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Film captures Conan O'Brien post-firing
  • "Conan O'Brien Can't Stop" documents talk-show host's comedy tour
  • Film goes inside head of one of the most creative, spontaneous and complex men on TV
  • Documentary delves into O'Brien's public split in 2010 with NBC's "The Tonight Show"

(CNN) -- Those expecting a garden-variety performance doc, i.e., entertaining performances peppered with amusing backstage clips and antics will get significantly more (and less) than they bargained for in Rodman Flender's revealing and thoroughly entertaining "Conan O'Brien Can't Stop."

Fans will get a rather intimate look at a man who is much more than a late-night talk-show host as cameras follow him during his mad dash around the United States and Canada on a 32-city music and comedy revue.

An example of the "Direct Cinema" style of documentary filmmaking (think "Gimme Shelter" by the Maysles Brothers or D.A. Pennebaker's "Dont Look Back"), "Conan O'Brien Can't Stop" is basically a seat on O"Brien's "Legally Prohibited From Being Funny on Television" tour bus and plane and an 89-minute sojourn inside the head of one of the most creative, spontaneous and complex men on television.

A key component to the film is the title: It should be taken literally, and it's a good thing that O'Brien is both hysterically funny and dedicated to his craft, because someone who talks as much as he does in this film could be an insufferable bore, which thankfully is the last word that could be attributed to O'Brien.

One of the joys of "fly-on-the-wall" looks at public figures is the idea that by seeing them backstage or at home, one gets a chance to "get to know" the subject a little more than when just seeing them do their job, and this film is no exception. We're introduced to O'Brien's wife, Liza Powel, and their kids Neve and Beckett and are given a glimpse inside the working day of a man who has been writing or performing for 26 of his 48 years on this planet.

Of course, you can't make a documentary about O'Brien without delving into the fallout from his rather contentious departure from NBC's "The Tonight Show" in 2010. One of the earliest moments of truthfulness in a film rife with them comes when O'Brien admits that he is, at times, still really angry about the whole thing and not just at NBC. Later in the film, he imagines what it would be like to receive a telegram from Jay Leno ("What's it like to have a soul?").

Any member of Team Coco (and they are out in droves in the film) that missed his tour (early scenes of the core group watching dates sell out in minutes are oddly riveting) will get enough of the on-stage theatrics so as to be thoroughly disappointed to have missed seeing O'Brien in a paisley reproduction of the leather suit Eddie Murphy wore in the concert film "Raw," O'Brien singing an upper-middle class Brookline, Massachusetts, version of the Elvis classic "Polk Salad Annie" and a duet with Jack White on Eddie Cochran's "Twenty Flight Rock."

The feeling that O'Brien's staff is of utmost importance to him is best seen through his relationship with his assistant Sona Movsesian, a young woman whose job it is to take care of a man who seemingly doesn't relish the idea of being cared for. At times passive-aggressive and at others playful, it becomes clear that O'Brien relies heavily on Movsesian. A tough job if there ever was one.

While the film is loaded with funny, revealing and even the occasional tender moment -- O'Brien romping on the bed with his kids just before leaving for the tour, for example -- one of the funniest yet cringe-inducing moments is the exchange between O'Brien and a young Canadian fan who is expressing his disappointment with a venue in rather anti-Semitic terms.

O'Brien seems rather stunned by the remarks, and the kid doesn't seem to understand that using the word "Jew" as a verb is offensive. When O'Brien responds that maybe he should dispense with the anti-Semitic language, the kid answers with "I love Mel Gibson," digging his hole even deeper.

The "Legally Prohibited From Being Funny on Television" tour was clearly the performance version of a heavy workout, something O'Brien literally needed to do to keep his mental and performance chops sharp after what could only have been an emotionally devastating experience with NBC.

"Conan O'Brien Can't Stop" is more than a performance doc and more than an inside look at a famous person's life. It's an up-close look at what one man had to do to recharge his batteries and keep his sanity.