‘The Comedy’ a fascinating if deliberately vague exercise about hipster culture
Directed by Rick Alvorson
Written by Rick Alvorson, Robert Donne, and Colm O’Leary
What purpose is there in an insincere life? Perhaps an aimless movie couldn’t dare answer such a heady question, but The Comedy, a new independent film starring Tim Heidecker of the TV show Tim and Eric Awesome Show, Great Job!, at least considers it through its main character. Swanson rambles through life, unattached to anyone or anything. As such, The Comedy represents whatever you, the viewer, bring to it. The film’s director and writers are, it seems, very careful in allowing the film to have a deliberately vague sensibility, turning it into a cinematic Rorschach test.
The 35-year old Swanson leads a charmed life, spending debauched, disaffected nights in Williamsburg with his friends (played by, among others, LCD Soundsystem’s James Murphy and Heidecker’s TV partner, Eric Wareheim), and days wandering around New York City. He’s able to live so high on the hog because of his wealthy father, who’s dying and will end up leaving his estate to his son. Because he’s able to thrive on a daily basis without a care in the world, Swanson winds up doing whatever he wants, usually in the form of a surprising or shocking jab against modern society.
The Comedy, a fittingly plotless and wandering exercise in examining the darkest parts of ourselves, is at times funny (Heidecker, in one scene, does an eerily accurate impression of Nick Nolte in his older years), but more a slow build into a disturbing tone. Swanson, despite being over 30, has mentally regressed. He’s an overgrown child, bringing everyone else down to his level. The way, for example, that he harangues a young woman at the restaurant where he decides to become a dishwasher, or attempts to disgust her by brushing his teeth and his nose and his beard in one fell swoop, is intentionally off-putting. Swanson sees life as a way to push back against societal mores, to screw around with a cab driver or pretend to be part of a landscaping crew so he can mock the upper-crust people who hire them.
Is Swanson meant to be some kind of damning statement against the hipster culture in New York City, or perhaps a warning sign of what’s to come for such younger crowds if they don’t outgrow their affectations? The choice by director and co-writer Rick Alverson to leave this up in the air, to back away from judging Swanson and his cronies one way or the other, is both the film’s greatest strength and something of a weakness. Allowing us to leap to our own conclusions about Swanson, whose actions range from playful bullying to an almost catatonic and unbelievable level of inactivity, is intriguing, but it ends up reinforcing the film’s drifting, distracted nature more than commenting on Swanson’s similar state of mind.
Still, The Comedy is absorbing to watch throughout, thanks primarily to Heidecker’s singular yet opaque work as a man so standoffish and distant from the real world, from an embrace of a single, honest moment, that he tiptoes between being weirdly empathetic and horrible. Swanson is a challenging person to bring to life without the performance seeming campy or cartoonish. Mocking the notion of hipsters could easily devolve into an obnoxious feature-length sketch that would be better off of Saturday Night Live, but Heidecker’s so fiercely committed to the role that you can’t look away.
The rest of the cast, also including fellow anti-comedy icon Neil Hamburger (his real name is Gregg Turkington), is fine, but they gravitate around Heidecker, who’s in just about every scene of the 95-minute movie. No matter what’s happening in the film, we’re often presented with Heidecker’s face, as much a Rorschach test as the movie itself. Is Swanson working hard to hide a reaction? Does he genuinely just not care about anything? There’s one notable scene about an hour into the film where he accidentally cut himself and spews forth a volley of profanity. This is, of course, a common reaction, but it’s the first time that Swanson feels human, like he’s acting naturally. It’s shocking in the moment.
The Comedy is, as you might expect, not really what its title promises. There are laughs in the film, certainly, but this is, by design, not meant to be laugh-out-loud funny. One imagines that if you’re a bigger fan of Tim and Eric from their Adult Swim shows, you’ll probably get a kick out of seeing them in something that’s at once more adult and more juvenile than their previous works. The Comedy has already provoked frustration and fury among some audiences, and adulation from others. What matters here is what you bring to the film, how you approach the characters, more than in most films. The onus is on the viewer to relate to or push back from Swanson, to like him or loathe him. As unexpected as The Comedy may be, it’s a fascinating exercise to watch unfold.
— Josh Spiegel