A Look Back: “The Comedy”.
What does it mean to laugh in defense? Does the act itself mask an unwillingness to seriously engage in the world around you? Is it indicative of a deeper sort of damage? Are there those amongst us who will laugh at a pot-bellied white dude extolling the virtues of “slave penis” in a Foghorn Leghorn accent? These are all questions worthy of serious time and discussion and so too is Rick Alverson’s woefully misunderstood 2012 picture “The Comedy”.
The limits of irony get tested almost to their breaking point in Alverson’s film, which was the most disconcerting movie of that year and one that many posh older critics unfortunately turned their backs on. Indeed, this is one of the most abrasive and unpleasant films to see mainstream theatrical release in quite a while. It’s a scathing, lead-hot attack on the ubiquitous hipster subculture, a film that will speak to troubling patterns in youth demographics and perhaps even be studied for its almost anthropological insights long after other so-called “comedies” have hit the bargain bin. I am genuinely worried that, like Mike Judge’s “Beavis and Butthead”, the audience for this film may see it and laugh without knowing that it’s mocking them. No matter: “The Comedy” has moments of stark, gut-grabbing hilarity, but at its dark, squirmy core, it is anything but funny.
If anything, Alverson’s film is a disturbing tragedy that is shocking in its evocation of apathy in the Twitter age. This film is as much of a portrait of an entire culture as “The Graduate” and while it’s too insular and self-satisfied to possess that film’s universal power, I would argue that Alverson’s film deserves the comparison. The Virginia-born director will return to cinemas later this year with “Entertainment” — about a pathetic stand-up comic drifting through the vast wastelands of middle America — and that film is said to be even more upsetting than “The Comedy” but that should do nothing to diminish this film’s scalding, almost physical intensity. This is not a movie you watch with your buds, guys. That is, unless your buds are like mine and take immense pleasure in watching human piss dribble down the drain in slow-motion. Then it’s a great time.
“The Comedy” is an alienating film about alienation (as well as cultural entitlement) and it reaches places most movies wouldn’t dare to go. It stars Tim Heidecker, poster boy of the Adult Swim anti-comedy movement, and while the film shares some of the same risky, button-pushing DNA as his television output, “The Comedy” is ultimately more of a formalist’s affair. Unlike the grainy, deliberately ugly aesthetic of, say, “Tim and Eric Great Job!”, “The Comedy” is a gorgeously directed movie and it contains more moments of genuine, albeit unusual visual poetry than most Oscar dramas.
In the film, Heidecker plays Swanson: an amoral, psychologically vacant trust-fund sociopath who is eagerly awaiting his elderly father’s death so he can collect the vast sum of money left in his will. In his spare time, which is practically all he has, Swanson talks about meaningless subjects with his friends, like the purity of hobo dicks, (“I read this the other day, hobo cocks are actually cleaner than hospital scalpels”) as well as engaging in bouts of beer-soaked, half-naked wrestling, harassing low-paid workers, praising Hitler at Brooklyn loft parties and taking long, existential night sails on his father’s yacht.
The film wanders from one jaw-dropping perversion to the next in a narrative that’s somewhat reminiscent of a Kenneth Anger psychodrama or Lars Von Trier’s “The Idiots”. It’s about a group of bourgeois lowlives who are so numb to true human feeling that all they can do is bounce aimlessly to and from social blunders, testing the limits of what they can get away with. There are scenes that are howlingly funny, scenes that are achingly sad and some stuff that’s just plain fucking strange the way “Lost Highway” was strange. Sometimes this all occurs in the same scene. While most comedies opt for tedious tones of moral relativity and surprisingly conservative ethical agendas, (looking at you, Judd Apatow) “The Comedy” is downright transgressive in its unwillingness to settle down into one mode of operating.
There’s one scene I find very worthy of repeat study. I refer to a scene where Swanson joins a crew of Mexican migrant workers who are doing construction on a mansion in upstate New York. Swanson does this mostly because he feels like it, because it’s just another game to him. Then, as the scene wears on, watch his perfect, soul-dead reaction when approached by the owners of the property. Moments like this are rare in movies, and especially rarer in films that attempt to make us laugh with jokes about prolapsed anuses.
This is a movie teeming with contradictions. A racially tense encounter Swanson has with a group of young black men at a Williamsburgh bar is queasily funny in what it says about white privilege and modern political correctness. And yet another scene where Swanson bullies and ultimately bribes a helpless cab driver into commandeering his vehicle for the night is too genuinely cruel to be laughed at. During these scenes, it’s easy to laugh in callous defense as the characters might, at the human atrocities on display. What’s harder — and some may argue that this kind of thinking doesn’t apply with a film that tries so very hard to offend and upset its audience — is to consider, “what does my reaction to [x] scene say about me as a person?”
And yet that’s the tightrope that this brave, incredible and sadly overlooked film walks. It asks us, why do we hide behind the veneer of standing for nothing? What is the pathology inherent in denying accountability for everything you do? Are hobo dicks really that clean? Like Jody Hill’s “The Foot Fist Way” (Hill, and his creative partners Danny McBride and David Gordon Green, produced Alverson’s film and one can sense their bleak sensibility here as well) “The Comedy” is the ugly flip side to the man-child farce, revealing its tainted, selfish inner desires that are as unsettling as they are frighteningly human. It’s not just the very best and most important comedy of recent years, it’s one of the best films too: as urgent, panicky and unwieldy in its brilliance as vintage John Waters, and about as disgusting. See it, but don’t say we didn’t warn you.