‘The Comedy’ Dares You to Laugh
If irony is the song of a bird who has grown to love its cage, then Tim Heidecker’s Swanson is luxuriating inside his aviary… with a cold can of Pabst.
Swanson, the anti-hero of Rick Alverson’s 2012 critically divisive indie The Comedy (no one in this film could possibly be mistaken for a redeemable hero), spends his days drinking with his equally odious and detached Brooklyn buddies, mocking his dying father’s male nurse, championing gentrification in the faces of black bar patrons, harassing foreign taxi drivers, and drifting through meaningless, irony-laced interactions with everyone in his life as blithely as he floats on his sailboat in the East River.
Alverson’s unsettling portrait of how certain people use privilege and irony to shield themselves from connection and intimacy is a tough watch, no doubt. But that’s precisely what makes it such a rewarding experience. The Comedy operates on two parallel tracks: as we engage with an unsympathetic character pushing the boundaries of socially acceptable behavior, Alverson challenges our expectation for cinematic payoff.
This is a confrontation as much as it is a comedy. Alverson allows minutes to pass by with no dialogue, the awkward silences punctuated by his lingering camera. Scenes and conversations play out longer than we expect, creating an uneasy tension as we wait for traditional comedic beats that never come.
Take, for example, the scene where Swanson and his pal Bobby (Greg Turkington) drink bloody marys at an outdoor café. They sit in silence half the time, sipping their booze and barely making eye contact, shifting in their seats in the summer heat. That silence slowly dissipates into pointless conversations about leasing apartments, homeless men and the crooked Wall Street bankers who perform fellatio on them. The two buddies try to one-up each other with dick jokes and graphic descriptions of oral sex, until they’ve had enough and retreat back into silence. The scene ends and seamlessly blends into the next. We never see Bobby again. It’s the operative anti-dick joke.
There’s a jarring beauty in this style of visual storytelling. Alverson appears uninterested in narrative logic or conventional structure. We are given no backstory of why Swanson’s dad is sick. We aren’t told or shown how these characters wound up so detached and broken, and we certainly aren’t witness to any growth or resolution.
Things are the way that they are. It’s up to us to decide if we care to live in these characters’ world. Either nothing matters or everything matters. In this specific way, Alverson has created his own theater of the absurd. Much like Kafka’s “The Metamorphosis,” The Comedy presents a world bereft of reason but full of people skittering around, desperate for meaning but looking for it in all the wrong ways.
Comedy can be, and should be, challenging. The true irony of The Comedy isn’t that it isn’t a “proper comedy” after all, but rather how little ironic detachment Alverson employs to fully immerse you in Swanson’s bubble. His camerawork is intimate and extreme, leaving little distance between the viewers and the characters they’re undoubtedly judging.
The Comedy’s barbed, confrontational humor, go-f*ck-yourself pacing, and anti-resolution push viewers’ limits. But it’s an investment (or risk) that is highly recommended. With artistry and an understated lyricism, Alverson, with the help of a ferociously melancholic performance from Heidecker, shows us how irony and ennui keep us from forming emotional or spiritual connection with others.
The film works on not just a psychological level but also a physiological one: you’ll contort your face, you’ll squirm in your seat, and you’ll feel uncomfortable. But, hey—at least you’re feeling something.
Article by Erik Abriss
Watch The Comedy on Tribeca Shortlist.