Brimming with Pabst and plaid and shot in handheld fashion that all but screams “mumblecore,” The Comedy portrays a demi-monde where little is said in earnest and courtship rituals are conducted via race-to-the-bottom political incorrectness. (It’s called Williamsburg.) The denizens of this world cover their vacant lives with a veneer of irony that erodes steadily as the film progresses. Don’t be fooled by the title, with its definite article conveying hipster scare-quotes: this isn’t a comedy but an anti-comedy, as sad as Magnolia and uncomfortable in the extreme. Ostensibly, it’s the tale of Swanson, a shiftless, 35-year-old quasi-bohemian played with unaccustomed seriousness by Tim Heidecker (of Tim and Eric fame). The film itself is as rootless as its characters, but Heidecker’s unsettling performance carries it. The Comedy may not aspire to be the portrait of a generation, but it certainly offers a scary dissection of a faux-careless Brooklynite sensibility that threatens to be the undoing of everyone involved.
Swanson, who dwells in a boat on the East River, is the very worst kind of trust-fund hipster, hectoring his father’s hospice nurse with mirthless jokes about anal prolapse between sips of scotch and bites on a cookie, or mocking South Asian cabbies with mortifying blitheness while his friends play along. These are but two examples of the meaningless entertainments Swanson concocts to distract himself from his dying dad, his brother who languishes in a mental institution, and his own lack of anything resembling a life-purpose. The homosocial opening montage, in which pudgy, barely clad grown men shower each other in Pabst while their long-suffering female friends watch with feigned amusement, embodies the rather lifeless bromances that constitute Swanson’s closest thing to family. Eric Wareheim, Heidecker’s longtime sketch collaborator, does sturdy work as a bespectacled schlub, stuttering over certain words in the improvisatory vein, while the supporting cast spends much of its time in various Brooklyn apartments critiquing each other’s “comedic instincts.” Whereas New York bohemians of the past had acoustic guitars and free verse, these guys just have deadpan weirdness.
Before long, of course, the surreal deadpan that Heidecker honed on Tim and Eric becomes humorless monotone, which in turn degenerates into the quiet discomfort of nothingness. Vinyl records are bandied about, and the boys find some sliver of adventure in making “ironic” visits to church and screening family photo slideshows interspersed with stills from a soft-core porn shoot. Swanson occasionally impresses a girl with his just-don’t-give-a-fuck outlandishness and brings her back to his boat for hits of weed and the odd orgasm. “Make yourself at boat,” he says gallantly to one conquest. Hope floats, they say, and so does Swanson’s watercraft, but the two have little else in common. Heidecker portrays Swanson’s gliding, tangential relationship with the world around him with a hollow-eyed mesmerism, and director Rick Alverson wisely lets Heidecker do his thing without too much ceremony. (Heidecker’s eyes do most of the work, but his paunch is almost a supporting cast member.) Whether Swanson’s stuck in a self-destructive spiral or merely a case of arrested development is the truly scary question that the film refuses to answer. Slender, scattered moments of joy include the final scene, in which Swanson splashes about in the waters of Brighton Beach with a stranger’s child. But this bit of bonny cavorting is no upbeat finale—it’s more like a scherzo at the tail end of a super-dark symphony.
In one scene toward the film’s beginning, Swanson picks up a chick by making hideously retrograde political statements. “I think people gave up too early on feudalism,” he slurs. “You know, there’s this theory that there’s a large percentage of human beings on the planet that don’t have, like, conscious thought. They’re just drones.” Does Swanson realize he’s talking about himself? The requisite layers of self-protective irony make it impossible to say. He’s a comedian in search of an audience, a bohemian in search of a cause, and maybe—just maybe—a human in search of something to value. Pity is, he’s been conditioned never to admit it.
Director: Rick Alverson
Writer: Rick Alverson, Robert Donne, Colm O’Leary
Starring: Tim Heidecker, Eric Wareheim, James Murphy, Gregg Turkington, Kate Lyn Sheil, Alexia Rasmussen, Jeff Jensen
Release Date: Nov. 9, 2012