Could there be a more unsympathetic character in today's culture than a well-born white male who uses his privilege irresponsibly? A highly improvised fictional exposé in search of the elusive heart and soul of hipster nihilism, The Comedy stars alt-comic superstar Tim Heidecker as Swanson, a trust fund 35-year-old hanging out in Williamsburg, fucking around, and waiting for his sickly dad to die.
The title is ironic, or maybe “ironic” — the film, writer-director Rick Alverson's third feature, is basically a shock drama. Its sensibility is kind of a hybrid of the awkward conceptualism associated with Heidecker and co-star Eric Wareheim (TV's Tim and Eric) and the brand of another of the film's players, James Murphy, figurehead of blue chip hipster auto-critics LCD Soundsystem. Where Murphy is known for dance tracks with lyrics that witheringly dismantle the pretensions of the audience most likely to dance to them. Alverson's film takes the form of a kind of glacially paced, shaky-cam art project that the Brooklyn dude-bros it depicts might bike to an arthouse to see — if for no other reason than to tell chicks they've seen it.
Heidecker makes a much more convincing 21st-century Arthur than Russell Brand. Chubby, bearded, beer-soaked, bedecked in novelty sunglasses and shorts, Swanson lives on a boat — because he's floating, get it? — and runs with a crew of dudes also defiantly unkempt. None of them is apparently married or seriously employed, and they have nothing better to do than to approach life as a starting point for a real-world version of improv comedy. Cab drivers are repeatedly fucked with. Swanson defends Hitler midflirtation, and the girl still goes home with him. The gang takes an ironic field trip to a church, followed by dive-bar whiskeys. Swanson evolves from pretending to be part of a landscaping crew in order to mess with entitled homeowners to actually slumming it as a dishwasher; and from blithely snacking on scotch and cookies while a male nurse attends to his sick dad to showing some glimmer of a desire to feel for the infirm.
Alverson has big ambitions: His statement in the film's press notes describes his protagonists as “an inevitable byproduct of the utopian dream come to fruition, ignorant or oblivious to the precarious state of world affairs, the economic uncertainty of their own country and the stagnation of the culture in which they live.”
I'm not sure if it's a blessing or a failure that those ideas are barely gleanable from what's actually on-screen. There's not a false note in the film, but maybe there's a difference between accuracy and truth. Certainly you can't accuse The Comedy of pandering to its audience, sentimentalizing its character study or even editorializing on top of it. That ultra-cool, matter-of-fact address is maybe the best way to speak to the knee-jerk indifference of its audience in this moment — the movie's analysis of Swanson and friends' behavior is essentially the cinematic equivalent of a Listicle Without Commentary on the Awl. But I wonder if decades from now, The Comedy might function as a sincere snapshot — its intended satire might be too dry, too implied, to survive the passage of time.
THE COMEDY | Directed by Rick Alverson | Written by Alverson, Robert Donne and Colm O'Leary | Tribeca Film | Cinefamily