Director: Rick Alverson
Starring: Tim Heidecker
In a film full of irony, nothing about The Comedy is more ironic than its title. This is not a funny movie; it’s really not even a comedy, even by the standards of “dark comedy.” Some scenes contain the pretence of joy and happiness, but it’s never real and always underscored by emptiness. This is a sad movie about a sad man for whom nothing is genuine... and it’s kind of brilliant. It’s a difficult film to watch because its characters are so unbearably unpleasant, but the film works because it understands that, because it understands that they’re abhorrent and manages to depict them without celebrating them. For a film that is largely about boredom, The Comedy is absolutely fascinating.
The story centres on Swanson (Tim Heidecker), a rich hipster whose father is on his deathbed. Swanson is indifferent to his father’s impending death, as well as the fact that he stands to inherit the considerable estate. He spends most of his time hanging out with his friends, mocking everything, allowing nothing to be authentic or meaningful. They verbally degrade whatever they can, with no subject off limits, no joke too distasteful to make (Swanson is the kind of guy who will flirt with a woman by stating that, once you remove mass murder from the equation, Hitler had some valid ideas). Nothing means anything to them and their friendships seem based less on actual enjoyment of each other’s company, and more on the fact that they’re engaged in a long game of one-upmanship which requires them to continue spending time in each other’s orbit.
On his own, Swanson seems to be performing for an invisible audience, creating increasingly irreverent scenes. He invites himself to join a gardening crew working in someone’s yard and then engages the homeowners in a conversation that begins as merely awkward and then slowly creeps towards sinister; he harangues a cabbie into accepting cash to let him drive his cab for twenty minutes and then starts behaving like a psychopath who’s either going to crash the cab or find something even worse to do; he walks into a bar patronised largely by African-Americans and makes a show of being a privileged white person. He can’t inspire himself to feel anything, so he needs to needle other people towards emotion, even if those emotions become anger or discomfort aimed at him. He is a deeply unpleasant person and yet, while the film never asks us to feel sympathy for him, it does manage to evoke something resembling pity. A life like his isn’t something you’d wish on your worst enemy.
Director Rick Alverson unfolds the story with clear-eyed detachment, seeing the characters for who they are, rather than who they are trying so very hard to pretend that they are. Swanson and his friends make conversation that has the tenor and cadence of humour, but even they aren’t laughing or enjoying themselves. One of the most striking things about the film is that when Swanson hangs out with his group of friends, they seem less like comrades and more like a group of people who kind of, but don’t really, know each other, much less like each other. Even their “happiness” is affectation, save for the final scene, which shows that Swanson is able to experience something real and pure – even if it is on the level of a child, rather than an adult.
The Comedy is a film designed to make you uncomfortable, but once you get past your distaste for the characters, it’s an absorbing character study. Swanson is completely detached from the world, literally (he lives on a sail boat anchored a few miles from shore) and figuratively. He can’t relate to other adults in an unironic way and he just can’t connect to the world around him, though beneath the layers of posturing, there’s something in him that seems, at least, to want to connect. He knows that his life, as he’s leading it, is meaningless – he just doesn’t seem to know how to break away from that.
The Comedy is a film that is likely of limited appeal. It’s easy to dislike, but I think that it’s far more complex and nuanced than it may at first appear. It was critically savaged when it came out last year, but I think that over time it will hold up a lot better than some more critically embraced films simply because it has a savage kind of honesty that really never becomes dated. It may not be pretty, but it’s definitely art.