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by Eric Kohn
January 27, 2012 9:00 AM
19 Comments
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The New Paradigm for the Sundance Breakout? When Audiences Walk Out.

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.

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.

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.

Criticwire grades:

The Comedy
: A

Compliance: B

Simon Killer: A-

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19 Comments

  • Hire an editor and use spell-check | October 16, 2012 3:24 PMReply

    "overprivileged"

    ... really?

  • F.P. | January 28, 2012 6:48 PMReply

    First, using walkouts as some kind of calling card is a rather specious argument. By that standard, 'The Surrogate' is doomed to fail. Second, comparing these three films is such a strange exercise - the walkouts at Sundance are as much about the packed nature of screenings and parties as they are about the films themselves. Third, the narcissism displayed on screen in 'The Comedy' (not unlike that on display in 'Young Adult') and the narcissism displayed behind the camera in 'Simon Killer' (not unlike 'Bellflower' which was a much better example of this type of immature film) have almost nothing to do with the narcissism of the police office character in 'Compliance,' a film that far exceeds to the two formers in its execution, performances, and ambitions. If the quality of the three films are major factors into why people walked out of each, it's because the former two say little in a faux arty manner, and 'Compliance' says something ugly and uncomfortably true about the sheepish nature of humanity. Yet it's the latter that gets graded far lower than two films that are pathologically unwatchable spectacles of disassociation, from the audience and their own respective inner logic. C'mon Eric, really?

  • bob hawk | January 28, 2012 3:32 AMReply

    Going into Craig Zobel's COMPLIANCE there was much to recommend it. I've always been a big fan of Zobel's GREAT WORLD OF SOUND, and I greatly admire three of the lead actors: Ann Dowd, Bill Camp and Pat Healy (the first two primarily for their stage work and Healy in films). And it is based on true events that are compellingly chilling. The problem for me -- being riveted for the first third, irritated for the second third as credulity was strained to the breaking point, then being bored out of my gourd and not caring about what was happening to anybody in the final third -- became apparent when reading the press kit after the screening. It stated: "With no tapes of the phone conversations in existence, Zobel couldn't resist writing down ideas OF WHAT HE COULD ONLY GUESS HAD TAKEN PLACE, VERBALLY [emphasis mine]. Eventually, he notes, 'I realized this could be a cool little potboiler of a story,' completing a script shortly thereafter in just a month's time." Well, I would like to suggest that the actual calls ("more than 70 such calls occurred throughout the country over a 10 year period") might have been more subtly and insidiously manipulative than the dialogue Zobel created for Healy's character of "Officer Daniels." I just could not buy that the reasonably intelligent and sensible characters as represented by Dowd and Camp would have continued to buy into the increasingly absurd utterances of Daniels. Not that I would have expected verbatim texts, if they had existed, but Zobel had no point of reference from which to work. COMPLIANCE was the only major disappointment of Sundance 2012. (P.S. I admired the integrity of the two other seemingly big-time polarizing films of the fest: SIMON KILLER and THE COMEDY.)

  • viola | January 28, 2012 1:22 AMReply

    Reading all these sour, self loathing, hate filled comments is a movie in itself. Spot the different characters.

  • Film_Shark | January 27, 2012 5:47 PMReply

    Let's face it. This is turning into a mediocre year for Sundance. Where are the Quentin Tarantino's, the Kevin Smith's, the Darren Aronofsy's, the Jim Jarmusch's of Sundance 2012? That is the burning question folks. Where are the darlings of previous festivals? Jennifer Lawrence from 2010? Felicity Jones and Elizabeth Olsen from 2011?

  • Thomasi | January 27, 2012 7:00 PM

    You bemoan mediocrity and then pine for Kevin Smith? Oh, brother.

  • albert zegula | January 27, 2012 3:34 PMReply

    This is an interesting review that contrast three films and connects with audience reactions, all in a page and a half.

  • Don Franken | January 27, 2012 3:23 PMReply

    I loved Compliance. Fascinating idea for the movie that was based on a true story. Captivating performances by lead actress Ann Dowd, breakout performance by young actress Dreama Walker, and also fine acting by Pat Healy. The director, Craig Zobel, is a very strong storyteller who is courageous enough to make a film likely to make people question authority, and their own values. One of the best films I saw at Sundance this year!!!

  • Vino | January 27, 2012 2:08 PMReply

    Far worse than "hipster" usage are "Amazing" and "Awesome." Meantime,
    none of these fest pix sounds interesting >> at all! Or << at nothing !

  • star jonestown | January 27, 2012 1:32 PMReply

    Interesting that you cite FROWNLAND, which took 2.5 years to even get a DVD release, and whose director hasn't made another feature (in 5 years).

    'Breakout' indeed.

    This article would've been more interesting if it dared to ask the question: Who are these sycophants pretending to like the intentionally unlikable? Btw, artists have experimented with intentionally repellent art from the beginning of time. "Metal Machine Music" does suck. Claiming that it doesn't simply b/c it's 'different' is actually not profound.

  • Thomasi | January 27, 2012 2:52 PM

    Star, I don't want to star a fight, but your post is pretty arrogant, and worse, emblematic of a kind of arrogance that become something of a pandemic. It reads, "It is not possible that there are people who genuinely like things that I don't like. People who claim to like those things are faking it." I recently stood in line at Morrissey concert with some very nice people who eventually opined that people who like Radiohead (yes, Radiohead!) secretly have some ulterior motive. Yes, we're all faking it, to the tune of $100 concert tickets and tens of millions of albums sold. We all just want our friends to think we're cool, so we pretend to like things we don't. Yes, I'm one of those 'sycophants' you deplore, but guess what? I genuinely like (some) atonal music, and (some) movies featuring unlikable characters. And my taste for them, if you can believe, is entirely unrelated to your distaste for them. Personally, I did like Keith by the end of "Frownland", but because he was difficult to like, my sympathy for him was earned. It's one of the things that made it quite brilliant. And, by the way, Kohn never said that film was a breakout; he simply compared Keith to the Heidecker character in "The Comedy."

  • Eric | January 27, 2012 2:09 PM

    THE COMEDY is likely to perform better than FROWNLAND because it already has several distribution offers on the table, not to mention a sizable fanbase for its star, and the director has already made two features before this one. The FROWNLAND comparison only had to do with the experience of watching such a challenging personality go about his routine. This was not mean to analyze its marketplace potential.

    When you put "different" in quotes, what are you quoting? I don't mean to imply that THE COMEDY breaks new ground, but rather that it effectively portrays a phenomenon that makes some people uncomfortable. It's not an easy viewing experience if you simply want to be entertained, but it does provoke some rather strong ideas about what happens to people when they stop caring about anything.

  • Thomasi | January 27, 2012 12:55 PMReply

    Tip is right. "Hipster" (in the usage of the day) is a lazy, amorphous term, the definition of which no two people can seem to agree on, and is most often used by people who would likely be called a hipster by someone else. Heidecker's character in "The Comedy" would more classically be described as an "asshole." Assholes are not unique to our times. They've been around forever, and besides, it's a much more effective word, with a timeless and universally accepted meaning.

  • Joe | January 27, 2012 12:26 PMReply

    Tip, you sound like a hipster who is embarrassed at your scene being lampooned.

  • Not Tim Heidecker | January 27, 2012 12:04 PMReply

    Tim Heidecker is awesome and did a great job.

  • Ambrose | January 27, 2012 11:45 AMReply

    Since I am trying to focus on the positive, vital and life enhancing, your review is invaluable. Your words of warning seem to indicate that you smelt something like the odor from feces from this movie, a useful warning that this thing should not be consumed, no value here.

  • Tip Wilson | January 27, 2012 11:30 AMReply

    You really need to expand your vocabulary and use another word besides hipster. Jesus Christ, what a terrible fucking review. You spent most of the time trying to throw around words you don't even know the meaning it seems like. Unless you were doing it for irony...

  • Dana Harris | January 27, 2012 12:15 PM

    For the record, "hipster" appears three times -- one of which is a reference to the website "Look at this fucking hipster."

  • Tyler | January 27, 2012 11:41 AM

    I don't see any problems with this review at all, not sure why the word hipster makes you go off. It is well written and describes the movie without giving things away.