More mean than mirthful, ‘The Comedy’ skewers the young and the aimless

Tim Heidecker as Swanson in 'The Comedy.' (Tribeca Film)
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Mark Sussman

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Despite the fact that it features Tim Heidecker and Eric Wareheim (of Adult Swim’s “Tim and Eric Awesome Show Great Job”) and Gregg Turkington (a.k.a. the conceptual stand-up comic Neil Hamburger), it will probably surprise no one that a movie called The Comedy is not a comedy.

The Comedy (released on On Demand last week; in theaters Nov. 9) has no gags or jokes. Even the moments in the film that might possibly count as funny are more likely to elicit the grim chuckle that Samuel Beckett called “mirthless laughter.” While this joylessness is part of the film’s point, it also forces its audience to ask some larger questions about what kind of cultural work its weird aggressiveness is performing.

The film is more or less a character sketch of Swanson (Heidecker), a trust-funder in his mid-30s living in a boat off the coast of North Brooklyn. Along with Van Arman (Wareheim), Bobby (Turkington), and Ben (LCD Soundsystem’s James Murphy)—who is a nearly silent, Harpo Marx-like figure—Swanson spends his time drinking, wandering around Williamsburg and Greenpoint, and visiting his unconscious, dying father, from whom he apparently stands to inherit even more money. At night he returns to the tiny, cramped ship he lives on, sometimes with a girl, almost always drunk. 

To put it bluntly, we spend most of the film watching Swanson act vile to people. He torments the male nurse caring for his father, terrorizes two taxi drivers, calls his sister-in-law a whore, makes fun of his brother’s institutionalization, attempts to racially provoke some black guys at a bar, drunkenly discourses on the unsung virtues of Hitler—“I’m not a Nazi or anything, but [Hitler] deserves a little bit of credit. If you took the murder out of the equation”—and looks on curiously as a girl he’s trying to seduce goes into seizures. You’d call him a sexist, an anti-Semite, a racist, but those things all require some form of belief, and we’re never sure if Swanson is quite capable of committing to anything so arduous as believing in something.

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As the film proceeds through episode after episode of Swanson and his friends torturing people, a narrative slowly emerges. Swanson is undergoing some sort of struggle over his inheritance, about what it means, and about where it came from. As he riffs on the idea that his father’s money came from slavery (whether it actually did or not we don’t learn), and he imagines that the furniture in his father’s home is made from the skin and flesh of dead slaves, he seems to simultaneously mock the memory of slavery and communicate a profound unease about even the hypothetical possibility of being related to slave owners.

And the story told in the film’s lengthy silences is largely about family. While Swanson is clearly estranged from his, he seems to long for familial connection. His cruelty towards his sister-in-law later culminates in an awkward embrace and an ambiguous kiss. Wandering around a hospital, he finds an unconscious man who resembles his father. Swanson stares at the family pictures adorning the room and gently combs the man’s hair. And one of the film’s only genuinely tender moments comes when Van Arman narrates a slideshow of family photos for his friends, recalling in detail the circumstances around them. The fact that they’re intercut with pornography makes it sweeter, somehow.

The silence of the photographs in these sequences seems to allow Swanson at least the semblance of a connection with other human beings. Throughout the film, whenever confronted with people other than his pals, Heidecker’s face communicates a combination of contempt and bored disinterest, the muted remnants of something that used to be disgust or outrage. Photographs, though, attract his interest, as does a sleeping woman, and the film’s two unconscious men. Swanson prefers to engage objects that offer themselves for contemplation rather than speaking subjects, as though muteness allowed him the opportunity to consider them from a safe, clinical distance. While Swanson may not turn slaves into furniture, he gets off on transforming humans into objects. When non-friends actually attempt to speak to him, he tries to verbally batter them into silence, speaking so offensively that they’re reduced to a cold stare that mimics his own. After an hour and half or so of this kind of chill, the film’s final scene, where Swanson meets a little boy at the beach and seems to have a genuinely good time as the two of them splash each other and play in the surf, seems more like a last lame excuse than an epiphany.

Which is all to say that, for the most part, watching The Comedy isn’t pleasurable in any conventional sense of the term. As director Rick Alverson (The Builder, New Jerusalem) writes in his statement about the film, Swanson and his friends are products of the “progressive American exceptionalism” fostered by places like Williamsburg, and so they become icons of both a geographically and socio-culturally specific “type” and a more general national trend. Aging, bloating, they’ve lived so hedonistically that they’ve pleasured themselves into anhedonia, and so the film seems both thematically and formally suspicious of the wounds, privileges, and politics that pleasure masks.

The bodies tell this story better than the film’s scant dialogue. The opening shot shows us Swanson's crew as naked or barely-dressed figures writhing in slow-motion, flabby, beer-soaked and drunkenly dance-wrestling over a melancholy soundtrack, penises tucked between their thighs. (And, as The Silence of the Lambs taught us, there’s no better visual shorthand for arrested adolescence and confusion than the mangina, with its grotesque imitation of the female sexuality it wants to possess—though, unlike Silence's Buffalo Bill, Swanson's boys are solidly homosocial and heteronormative). Heidecker’s gut bulges out, and he takes perverse pleasure in showing it off, while James Murphy’s neckbeard threatens to join forces with his chest hair and colonize the rest of his body.

If the film has any success, it’s in the way it turns fun into grotesquerie, communion into alienation: the thing it does most effectively is to make you feel as terrible as Swanson’s victims. Like Michael Haneke’s Funny Games before it (another film with a grimly ironic relationship to the comedy its title promises), The Comedy traffics in a pervasive sense of dread, the fear that something might happen and the knowledge that it will. And like Funny Games, it's difficult to know whether The Comedy is an aggressively nihilistic film or a film that just happens to be about damaged or sociopathic characters. Whether these characters read as products of an affectless, soul-dead cultural miasma burbling out of North Brooklyn or sensitive dudes who dress their bleeding hearts in irony will, I wager, largely depend on your attitude toward the movie’s Williamsburg and Greenpoint settings, and specifically toward the kind of Williamsburg/Greenpoint resident Swanson and his friends are supposed to represent.

It will also depend on if you believe such residents even really exist.

Which is to say that The Comedy makes the critique of “progressive American exceptionalism” both plausible and dubious by coupling it to a bunch of hipsters. But it’s too comforting and too easy to believe that American privilege wears the face of a “Williamsburg Hipster,” because the “Williamsburg Hipster” is a favorite strawman, a scapegoat that allows us to believe that our differences are primarily matters of cultural style, of taste and authenticity, and of phantom armies of rich young men with nothing to do, rather than massive problems of deeply ingrained structural inequality and inherited economic privation. The idea of unearned and inauthentic accumulation permeates every conception of “hipsterdom,” whether it’s the appropriation and ignorant decontextualization of fashion (anyone remember keffiyehs?), anachronistic facial hair, or claiming to have “discovered” X obscure/important band. When all of us, of course, do that; nobody invents a culture, and so everyone who participates in it is also appropriating from it. We excoriate and mock the thing that reminds us of our own essential and necessary inauthenticity, of the way in which we’ve profited either literally or figuratively from the innovations of others, of the unsanded edges of our own self-fashioning.

While Alverson thickens his characters into something more than stereotypes, the idea that these products of “progressive American exceptionalism,” because they live off of deeply immoral investments (like… slavery?) and make money by charging rent to poor people, are also the cause of social asymmetry is easier to buy. They accumulate rather than create and then mock, insult, refuse to commune with the communities around them, the immigrant cab drivers, the “ethnic” male nurse, the black guys at the bar, a church where they blow out votives and screw around in the pews. And the fact that they’re able to do little more than ironize and bullshit and drink away all they’ve got turns these sub rosa notions of accumulation and ownership into vicious negations of belief and cultural investment.

But in the midst of an economic crisis this bad and with its roots in government deregulation and all sorts of financial instruments nobody actually understands, are these assholes really the face and the cause of exceptionalism and privilege?

Of course not. What they have is a lot of symbolic capital, and that’s why they’re more palpably a symbolic feature of their environment than they are active participants. In a way, it’s admirable that The Comedy attempts to both humanize and dehumanize its subjects so completely, as if by taking us through the extremes of empathy and alienation we could capture something of the psychic vertigo we’re led to believe they endure.

Ultimately Alverson is much better at alienating than he is at empathizing, which would be fine if that alienation were directed to some aesthetic end. But it just suggests that his characters are better viewed as the scapegoats they so easily become than the humans he wants us to see, and so we end with the sense that, like Swanson’s boat, these floating lives are better kept at a distance.