The term "crowdpleaser" usually applies to movies with commercial potential; at this year's Sundance Film Festival, some of the most appealing films seem to be ones that only pleased those bold enough to stick around. When the walkouts began at during Thursday's screening of Rick Alverson's U.S. competition selection "The Comedy," the movie sprang to life.
The title is a clever bit of false advertising: There's little conventionally funny about "The Comedy," but its status as a provocation is a grand joke. Director Alverson ("New Jerusalem") has made a one-of-a-kind portrait of pathologically insecure and overpriviledged hipsters, crafting the finest awkward-bizarre character study since Ronald Bronstein's "Frownland." The first brilliant maneuver is its casting of Tim Heidecker as the supremely unlikable lead. Best known as one half of the irreverent comedy duo from "Tim and Eric's Awesome Show, Great Job!," Heidecker embodies a supremely obnoxious Williamsburg resident committed to wisecracks, regardless of whether or not anyone laughs. Usually, they don't — and neither do we. That's the point.
Whether tossing vulgarities at the male nurse tasked with caring for his comatose father or engaging in racially tinged humor with a stunned group of African-Americans, Heidecker's Swanson knows no bounds. There are few mainstream precedents for a protagonist so intrinsically hard to like, but "The Comedy" gives Swanson enough screen time to put his psychoses in context. Sporting a scruffy beard and a flabby chest, he physically embodies the careless perspective he brings to his life. "I'm not a regular man," he says, in a rare moment of honesty, before reverting back to his cruel nature.
This 35-year-old manchild wastes his days living on a junky boat and juggling odd jobs in between drunken escapades with a group of likeminded reprobates (one of whom is played by former LCD Soundsystem frontman James Murphy). He recklessly hits on women with a twisted sense of humor, at one point joking that he's a convicted racist. Swanson's self-confidence never wanes; he's well aware of his rampant dickishness, even empowered by it. The movie is a powerful generational statement, boiling down the stereotypical white male hipster to recklessness and boredom, combining to create an equation of utter despair.
Unsurprisingly, audiences began streaming for the aisles not long after Swanson's behavioral patterns took shape. Others stayed until the lights went up, hoping for a payoff that never arrived. "Amateurish bullshit," muttered a man in front of me as he grabbed his coat and stormed out in a huff. Someone a few rows back told his companion that he took a nap halfway through.
But during the Q&A, a fanbase for "The Comedy" took shape. Some questioners touched on the nature of the character's persistent vanity, while others suggested that the walkouts reflected an unwillingness to contemplate Swanson's flaws. To be fair, he's an unseemly spectacle — a disgusting and sad embodiment of "Look at this fucking hipster" in moving-picture form.
The strange life of "The Comedy" at Sundance begs comparison to a similar response that greeted Craig Zobel's "Compliance." Zobel tackles the odd instance of a prank caller who impersonated a police officer and convinced fast-food staffers to mistreat one of their co-workers in increasingly horrible ways that culminate with a sexual assault. The movie constantly forces you to wonder how the hell these people could be so stupid.
That defines both the appeal of "Compliance" and its main flaw, since it never answers that central question. However, in compelling viewers to consider the boundaries of gullibility, "Compliance" injects its thought process into the minds of anyone willing to watch it. At the Sundance screenings, some fled; others spoke out in protest as the credits rolled; a third contingency lavished the movie with praise. All three groups can't stop talking about it.
Neither "The Comedy" nor "Compliance" invite a relaxed viewing experience, and so they anger and enlighten in equal measures. Unsurprisingly, reps for both movies turned the divisive reactions into marketing tools, issuing press releases noting their unique journeys to the top of the festival conversation.
Is this a new form of festival buzz? "The Comedy" has already landed an endorsement from Rough House Pictures, the production company run by David Gordon Green, Danny McBride and Jody Hill, whose involvement with the movie will likely help it land a solid distribution deal. "Compliance" has fielded several offers. A third movie that faced split reactions, "Simon Killer," has reportedly come close to landing a home as well. Antonio Campos' dark follow-up to "Afterschool" follows a young American traveling abroad and slowly losing his mind; having received grades ranging from A to F on Indiewire's Criticwire network, the movie contains an undeniable technical skill but left some Sundancers less excited than bored.
Each of these titles work against expectations in favor of original material and execution, providing a stark contrast to the safer forms of entertainment that usually land the largest deals at the festival. In their own bizarro fashion, "The Comedy," "Compliance" and "Simon Killer" represent a fresh kind of Sundance breakout that confronts normalities with a trenchant gaze and refuses to back down. The festival is richer and wiser for having them, whether or not all audiences realize it.
The Comedy: A
Simon Killer: A-