Abrasive character study is like the Taxi Driver of hipster comedies
Directed by Rick Alverson
Cast: Tim Heidecker, James Murphy, Eric Wareheim
The comedy of discomfort is a brand of humor in which not terribly pleasant people say and do deplorable things to one another. Larry David’s “Curb Your Enthusiasm” may not have invented the aesthetic, but it certainly crystalized the style in many people’s minds. Shows like “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia,” “Eastbound & Down” and Ricky Gervais' original British version of “The Office” have expanded on David’s treatise, finding new and different ways to make audiences squirm.
Comedian Tim Heidecker hasn’t been a particularly fervent devotee to the discomfiting aesthetic, having forged his career mostly on alternative “anti-comedy”—the dadaist, stream-
Heidecker assumes the role of Swanson, a middle-aged, out-of-shape trust fund baby who entertains himself by screwing mercilessly with friends, family, neighbors and strangers. He accomplishes this by joking with them, needling them or launching into highly inappropriate rants about prolapsed anuses and hobo penises. He might, for example, introduce himself to a woman at a party by discussing Hitler’s finer points. Why, exactly? Well, that's a damn good question.
What we do eventually suss out about this twisted mess of a man is that he lives on a boat anchored somewhere off Manhattan. He heads into trendy Williamsburg occasionally to hang out with other drunken, bearded louts (including “Tim and Eric” cohort Eric Wareheim and LCD Soundsystem figurehead James Murphy). He accosts strangers. Gets a job as a dishwasher. Gives a cab driver 400 bucks so he can drive. But mostly he’s waiting around for his elderly father to pass away.
Dad’s apparently pretty wealthy, lying in a near coma in some sprawling mansion somewhere. Does Swanson care? Is he scared? Happy? Resigned? Hard to say, really. In large part, The Comedy is a stumbling tour through New York City with an aimless tour guide. For all its weird meandering and audience off-putting, however, there’s a deeper and darker level at play in The Comedy.
Our protagonist seems to crave human contact. He does it in just about the worst way possible, though, freaking people out or at least annoying the hell out of them. He’s like a feral cat who communicates by biting the hand that feeds it because it doesn’t know a better way. Occasionally, if you’re paying very close attention, you'll catch a hint of meaning behind Swanson’s mockery.
In one scene, for example, Swanson sits sloshed on the front porch of his father’s mansion. He launches into a nasty discourse involving plantation slaves. Taken at face value, it’s a faux-racist screed using as many politically incorrect terms as possible. Underneath that, though, is an implicit criticism of the antebellum-style upper crust in general and—one assumes—his father in particular. There’s definitely something going on under the surface here. But Alverson’s slack direction and Heidecker's improv performance don’t exactly curry a lot of favor.
The whole thing is probably intended as a rank satire of the overprivileged class—a glimpse at what happens when rich hipsters get too old to hang out at the trendy clubs. Or perhaps it’s just one big joke on us art house moviegoers and our navel-gazing Sundance dramedies.
The Comedy—and, yes, that title is meant to be taken as ironically as possible—wins points for its unwillingness to pander to audience needs. It also puts up an admirable fight against sentimentalizing any of its characters. Or offering any scrap of editorial comment regarding their situation. This arid, indifferent film leaves us in largely the same place we were when we started: uncomfortable and unenlightened. Those willing to dig underneath the film’s onionskin-thin layers may admire this scabrous portrait of entitled slacker anomie. Most viewers, though, will simply settle for offended, annoyed and a little bored.