With “Tim and Eric’s Billion Dollar Movie” and Rick Alverson‘s “The Comedy” (starring Tim Heidecker) both playing at the Sundance Film Festival, it’d be easy to simply peg the former as your standard bizarre T&E affair and the latter as a dramatic art house effort. But that’s simply much too reductive for Alverson’s current character study, a film uniquely weird in its own right and filled with enough of the duo’s humor to make their followers happy — to a point. The director uses comedy to explore a man’s inability to be a human being as he constantly involves himself in situations purely for irony’s sake, refusing to take others’ lives into consideration. There was much, much talk about how unlikable Charlize Theron was in “Young Adult,” but as far as this writer’s concerned, she has nothing on Heidecker’s Swanson. It’s a difficult film in that sense, one that incites laughter but immediately questions the intent (and point) of the characters’ catalytic behavior. Occasionally feeling like the work of John Cassavetes, ala “A Woman Under the Influence” (not to put anyone off — the Cassavetes comparison has been so abused in the past few years by American directors that it apparently only means filming people talking), Alverson’s latest maybe be a tough sit given its subject and attitude, but his expert hand and intelligent nature creates a worthwhile, singular experience.
As his wealthy father lay in an unresponsive state within their lavish home, Swanson ignores the reality of the situation by wasting the days hanging out with the likes of Eric Warheim and James Murphy (LCD Soundsystem himself). The nurturing atmosphere is Williamsburg, a Brooklyn neighborhood comprised of different ethnic groups but mostly consisting of your run-of-the-mill, butt-of-the-joke hipster culture. Swanson and his buds waste the days by playing wiffle ball, riding bikes, harassing a cabby that refuses to put on hip-hop music, and acting like mental patients at house parties. By himself, our protagonist’s motives are more mysterious — at one point, he comes upon a few immigrant landscapers and immediately inserts himself into the work, removing his shirt to get down ‘n dirty. When the homeowner swings by, Heidecker pretends to be the boss, confessing that his men continuously talk about the nearby pool and uncomfortably insists that they be allowed to take a dip. The estate’s owner agrees without much of a fight, causing Swanson to immediately drop the act and leave. This strange action begets a pattern, from pretending to be a sales rep at a furniture flea market to actually getting a low-paying gig as a dishwasher in one of the thousand eateries in Brooklyn. Part of it is the character hoping to get a rise out of people, failing, and briefly realizing his futile act — but it also charts his slow, admittedly resistant progression towards some sort of normal lifestyle. Cleaning an endless assortment of coffee mugs and dinner plates, Swanson is sarcastic when interacting with a waitress (Kate Lyn Sheil), but it still seems like his subconscious is trying to direct him onto the right path.
But the stern joker is unable to participate in anything earnestly, and as his father’s health deteriorates even further, his sister-in-law attempts to wrangle him into taking some sort of control of his life with the onset of their incoming inheritance. Alverson constantly assembles scenes with the potential for redemption but never forces his characters into it — the path is clearly visible but unfortunately not on the agenda for Swanson. In that sense things don’t wrap up neatly, there is no lesson learned nor is there at all a direct, sympathetic connection between the audience and Heidecker. Though the emotional attachment to our movie-leads is something we all automatically crave (hell, it’s been ingrained into us by cinema for decades), the director instead portrays a man long off the rails, where even the most pressing life circumstances fail to ignite any maturity. “The Comedy” is not a tale of morality, it’s a tragedy.
Alverson keeps the camera close, meticulously following all movement as if searching for a crack in the ego’s shell. When the director does frame wide, he captures the very small world of Williamsburg in all its youngster glory — going even wider, the Manhattan skyscrapers lurk overhead, the real world beckoning. Somehow, they’re able to ignore it. Combined with an eerie score, these moments are oddly startling and quite effective, conveying an enormous amount of feeling in a simple way. Heidecker is quite perfect for the role, obviously funny but also a very compelling lead, giving the film’s quieter moments an immense strength. His look not only suggests regret for his conduct, but also admits to a sort of weakness — can he really not handle these situations? Or is it that his desire to be an antagonistic clown greatly outweigh the urge to do the right thing? His crazier moments pull from Gena Rowlands rather than from the ballistics of his television program.
The film comes to a close with one last shot at Swanson’s redemption. As we look back on Alverson’s piercing critique of extended adolescence and rejection of obligation, one wonders why the hijinks of the characters were never met with any proper comeuppance, especially considering the amount of scenes in which Heidecker fucks with one or more people. A later scene involving a taxi driver involves some verbal retaliation, certainly something of substance, but it doesn’t exactly do the trick. What we draw from this moment is that his family considers him helpless and useless, while strangers don’t see him being worth any of the trouble. Fitting punishment, if a bit too subtle to be picked up on.
“The Comedy” sees the director working with bigger names but still retaining his sensibilities. We don’t have to mention that hipster culture is the new whipping boy (apparently we’re hipsters for liking Pixar) and Alverson could’ve easily fired at the surface, gathering plaudits for being topical. Instead he digs up something that affects more people than just Brooklynites, the lack of sincerity in our lives and this generation’s reluctance of commitment. It’s a meaty film, filled with ideas unobscured by any generic narrative string, a move that shows not only the confidence of the director but his respect of the audience. This is one that’ll have people talking. [A-]