Cole’s desire to do something to address the issue of bullying in schools and beyond is genuine and heartfelt and he has no shame in almost stalking a whole bunch of celebrities who might be able to help him on his journey (the gallery of selfies with these famous faces on his website is pretty extensive). In one case, he enlists the help of a photographer friend to pretend to be the paparazzi lying in wait for him outside an exclusive nightclub to try and give him enough celeb cred to get past security. In many cases, his genuine desire to do good seems to pay off. He convinces actor and musician Jeff Goldblum to play piano on the track and that seems to pave the way for an impressive line-up of other singers and musos to come on board; Julian Lennon, Slash (Guns N’ Roses), Steve Vai (Frank Zappa Band), Chad Smith (Red Hot Chilli Peppers), Robbie Krieger (The Doors), Lemmy Kilmister (Motorhead), Billy Morrison (Billy Idol), Dave Stewart (The Eurythmics), singers Chantal Kreviazuk, Jim Cuddy, Sam Roberts and more. And while all this is going on in LA and New York, Cole is also spending time in England, trying to track down the illusive teenage bully Paul Blades so that he might confront him after all these years.
Splitting the focus between these two storylines works as much against the film as it does for it. With the bullying theme being the only connector, we often seem to switch to the Paul Blade story just as the recording story gets interesting and vice versa. The distraction of these narrative shifts doesn’t successfully find a way to let one serve the other and the diluted focus is exacerbated as the doco tries to extend its enquiry into much larger issues such as #Me Too, the Columbine Shootings, the incident of Lenore Skenazy (the so-called worst mother in the world who famously left her nine-year-old son alone on the subway to find his own way home) and even the Rwanda genocide, looking to makes links between these issues and the bullying issue at the heart of the doco. Rather than deepening the material, it ends up feeling like padding to a subject that doesn’t really have enough to sustain the 71 minute running time and ends up simply drawing us away from the main game.
Where the doco is at its most interesting is when Cole widens his search for musos and singers to include interviews with other celebrities on their own experiences of bullying. For the most part they’re the kinds of stories we’ve heard before, but there’s a genuine fascination when actors Sir Patrick Stewart and Michael Biehn shamefully admit to having been bullies themselves. There’s also a perverse fascination as Charlie Sheen describes the social media revenge he took on someone who bullied his daughter. Sadly, though, these moments are all too brief and the film spends much more time with school psychologist Israel ‘Izzy’ Kalman who’s using martial arts to teach kids to stand up to bullies, and whose interviews with Cole stray into what becomes a kind of public therapy session. And this is where the film is at its weakest. The English playwright Arnold Wesker once said that “...all art provides a degree of therapeutic benefit for the artist... (but) the trap is to not be seduced into thinking that what engaged us in reality is automatically engaging on the stage...” The same applies to the screen and for some of #No Joke it is more like we are witnesses rather than audience for this public record of Cole’s very personal journey.
As such, the film is stronger in its concept than in its realisation. It may well have been a more compelling 30 minute episode than a feature documentary but, this aside, those elements that do work are well worth our time, and the individual achievement of one man with a mission is to be applauded.