The Comedy: Sundance Film Review

The Comedy

U.S. Dramatic Competition

The steady walkout rate at its first Sundance screening suggests that this provocative, darkly comic treatment of contemporary malaise will be too punishing for most audiences.

Tim Heidecker of "Tim and Eric" fame brings uglier shades to his humor in director Rick Alverson's hard-to-watch examination of white male privilege gone wild.

PARK CITY – Either remarkably sustained or unrelenting, depending on your point of view, Rick Alverson’s ironically titled The Comedy is an epic display of the over-privileged, eternally adolescent white American male behaving badly. The anomie of entitlement pushed to poisonous extremes is the basis of this provocation, which is as frustrating as it is intriguing. And the degree to which audience members find the characters pitiable or contemptible, relatable or repugnant is its big question.

The film stars Tim Heidecker and also features Eric Wareheim, partners in the surrealistic Adult Swim series, Tim and Eric Awesome Show, Great Job! (Their first feature, Tim and Eric’s Billion Dollar Movie, also premieres at Sundance.) The duo’s presence feeds a steady stream of black humor derived from situations of awkward antagonism, but the intent here is more dour than droll. The Comedy in many ways is a curdled extension of the mumblecore wave that crested a few years back. Certainly, the oft-used Slackavetes tag could apply.

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The slow-mo opening sequence shows a bunch of scruffy-bearded, paunchy dudes in their underwear or naked, dancing to a mellow groove while drenching each other with beer. Ringleader of the band is Swanson (Heidecker), a mid-30s schlub living a bubble-like existence in the Brooklyn hipster neighborhood of Williamsburg.

Swanson is about to inherit his wealthy father’s estate. But his lack of emotional investment in the impending loss is clear as he shoves cookies into his mouth while baiting the dying old man’s contemptuously unresponsive male nurse.

Boating around the East River is the only conspicuous sign that Swanson has money. Mostly, he just hangs out with his like-minded buddies, the core cronies played by Wareheim and James Murphy, better known as the nucleus of LCD Soundsystem. They swap mock-sincere testaments of mutual esteem, muse on nonsense topics, taunt cab drivers, extinguish prayer candles and disrupt worshippers in church or just tool around the neighborhood on their bikes.

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Tirelessly scrutinized by Mark Schwartzbard’s clingy camera, the actors show us glimpses of the discontent beneath their characters’ juvenile pastimes. But they remain an irksome group, pathetic in their indifference to the pull of the real world.

Swanson’s behavior when he’s playing solo is perhaps more unnerving. His abrasive humor runs to defending Hitler or mimicking a good ole Southern boy admiring his slaves. He goads customers at a bar in a black neighborhood with his patronizing talk, pretends to work in an antiques market, actually takes a dishwashing job in a restaurant for $7.50 an hour and pays a taxi driver $400 to let him take the wheel for a joyride. His pranks might result in occasional verbal abuse, but never accountability. 

If the targets of his antics comply with his odd requests, Swanson gets bored. He inserts himself among a group of immigrant gardeners and asks the property owners’ permission for the workers to take a dip in their pool. As soon as they consent, game over. When a waitress at the restaurant (Kate Lyn Sheil) gives as good as she gets in an offensive exchange, Swanson is so taken aback that he accidentally gashes his hand on a knife.

His nonreaction when she has a seizure on a subsequent date indicates that he’s unwilling or incapable of following the fundamental guidelines of human interaction, even if he appears to understand them. He’s likewise ambivalent when his sister-in-law attempts to have him sign documents pertaining to family finances. His total remove from normal life seems too deeply ingrained to be broken.

There is a clear sense in Heidecker’s layered performance, however, that Swanson is pushing for a reaction, whether it’s scorn, violence or compassion. But as good as the actor is, the pathos of his character’s torpor is never allowed to resonate.

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Alverson is onto something culturally significant about the terminal disconnect bred by vapid self-indulgence, and there’s certainly rigor in his methods. But you can only make an audience squirm for so long without a payoff. If we’re to be anything but repelled or bored by the people onscreen, there at least has to be a whisper of self-assessment, sobriety or despair beneath all the aggressive banter and obnoxious clowning.

The suggestions of a person under Swanson's mask of detachment are a long time coming and barely make a ripple when they do. That means that despite the tenacity with which Alverson and co-writers Richard Donne and Colm O’Leary pursue their underlying theme, The Comedy comes off as self-reflexive and futile. It’s fine to flaunt the rules and refuse to follow a traditional arc that points to maturity or at least comeuppance. But ongoing numbness is a deadening alternative.

Venue: Sundance Film Festival (U.S. Dramatic Competition)
Production companies: Jagjaguwar, Greyshack Films, Glass Eye Pix, in association with Made Bed Productions
Cast: Tim Heidecker, Eric Wareheim, Kate Lyn Sheil, Alexia Rasmussen, Gregg Turkington, James Murphy, Jeffrey Jensen
Director: Rick Alverson
Screenwriters: Rick Alverson, Richard Donne, Colm O’Leary
Producers: Mike S. Ryan, Brent Kunkle
Executive producers: Chris Swanson, Darius Van Arman, Ben Swanson, Jonathan Cargill
Director of photography: Mark Schwartzbard
Production designer: Shawn Annabel
Costume designer: Isabel Crosby
Editors: Michael Taylor, Rick Alverson
Sales: Submarine
No rating, 94 minutes.