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‘2 Minutes of Fame’: Jay Pharoah impressive even without impressions

The ‘SNL’ alum capably plays a comedian famous for mocking — and irritating — a superstar.

Deandre (Jay Pharoah), an aspiring comedian, relies on girlfriend Sky (Keke Palmer) to provide for their son (Jonny Berryman) in “2 Minutes of Fame.”
Lionsgate

If I asked you to name the greatest impressionist working today, my guess is you’d say Frank Caliendo or Jay Pharoah. Each has a remarkable gift for mimicry, whether it’s “Fox NFL Sunday” alum Caliendo doing masterful takes on John Madden, Al Pacino and Jeff Goldblum, or “Saturday Night Live’s” Pharoah killing it with impersonations of Eddie Murphy, Denzel Washington and Jay Z.

As has always been the case for master impressionists, such talent can be a double-edged sword for one’s career. It’s difficult to climb out of that box and establish a body of work beyond sounding like other, more famous people. In the funny and insightful and loosely structured comedy/drama “2 Minutes of Fame,” Pharoah plays an aspiring stand-up comic not unlike the young Jay Pharoah, which presents the opportunity for him to trot out some of his Greatest Hits impersonations — but he also proves to be a more than capable actor playing a character we’re rooting for MOST of the time, even though he’s not always the most likable guy in the room.

Directed by Leslie Small (who has helmed numerous Kevin Hart stand-up specials) from a script by Devon Shepard and Yamara Taylor and clocking in at an economical 97 minutes, “2 Minutes of Fame” stars Pharoah as Deandre, an aspiring comic who has gained a measure of viral fame through his scathing YouTube reviews of the films of one Marques Black (Katt Williams), a superstar comedian-turned-actor who is making $20 million a picture but has become a sellout, according to Deandre. “Watch this s----- trailer and tell me how s----- you think this is,” Deandre cracks about Marques’ new and quite cheesy-looking action film, “Secret Service Man.”

Not that Deandre is actually making a living with his comedy. All those clicks he’s been getting translated to all of $6 in income over the last month. (He’s yet to reach that brand-awareness, sponsorship level of popularity.) His live-in girlfriend Sky (Keke Palmer) is the one paying the rent and providing for their young son, while Deandre bolts to Los Angeles to compete in a comedy showcase, with the winner getting the chance to go on a national tour.

Deandre’s selfishness and sometimes mean behavior (he cruelly insults his son’s piano teacher, who is only trying to offer some help) sometimes makes it hard to root for him, even though he’s the decided underdog in the social media war with the overly sensitive Marques, who breaks the cardinal rule of Internet disputes: Never feud “down,” always punch up. When Marques interrupts Deandre’s comedy set and tears him to shreds for hiding behind his impersonations (“Mike Epps is probably doing Mike Epps right now, why don’t you do you?”), we can feel where the veteran pro is coming from. As Andy Allo’s comedy club host Taylor says to Deandre: “He wasn’t wrong. Y’all YouTubers don’t appreciate what an art stand-up is.”

Big-name comedian Marques Black (Katt Williams) does not appreciate Deandre’s impressions of him in “2 Minutes of Fame.”
Lionsgate

As Deandre considers a romance with Taylor while Sky debates whether to join Deandre in Los Angeles in support of his dream, “2 Minutes of Fame” offers some serious food for thought about the world of comedy. Marques lets Deandre get to him because he knows Deandre is right; What in the world is Marques doing playing a man in a crow suit with gold chains? Meanwhile, Marques calls Deandre out on his insecure bravado and encourages him to drop the arrogance, while Taylor tells Deandre he should draw on his own experiences to tell the truth in his comedy. This leads to a brilliant set in which Pharoah as Deandre drops the impersonations and connects with the audience by sharing from his life, proving that Deandre (as well as Jay) deserves to have a career well beyond an uncanny ability to sound like other people.