Rick Alverson’s new film The Comedy is a curious piece of work, both tenacious and specific in a way that I really admire. It may star comedian Tim Heidecker, and for bits his partner Eric Wareheim (as well as musician James Murphy), but Comedy Central crowd be warned: we are in existential territory. Heidecker plays Swanson, a late-stage incarnation of homo sapiens subspecies Williamsburgus. Anyone not familiar with this beast’s behavior in the urban wild may find this film bewildering, and I recommend proceeding with caution. But I have had ample opportunity to regard the Williamsburgus up close, and Alverson’s film could be an Animal Planet documentary. Female Williamsburgi are occasionally lured into the cave, but appetite for sexual and emotional companionship seems vestigial at best. For the most part the males run in packs, and by “run” I mean cruise around on battered Schwinns (though dismissive of most trappings of modern life, they are excessively celebratory of the invention of the wheel). Those social bonds are held together by some strange, cruel, casually homoerotic code of male friendship. The opening scene — of Swanson and company drunk, naked, and maybe dancing? — captures it well. Alverson shot this in slow-motion, and ingeniously pairs it with Donnie and Joe Emerson’s dreamy jam “Baby.” Come to think of it, this scene could be a capsule of the entire film: Alverson’s dry (to the point of aridity) sense of humor, fine musical instincts, and disgusted empathy for the stunted man-children of The Comedy.
It just gets better from there. What plot there is consists of Swanson visiting his dying father, sniffing out real estate deals with his shady partner (played by comedian Neil Hamburger aka Gregg Turkington), and perplexingly getting a job washing dishes at one of those ubiquitous old-timey Brooklyn restaurants. These “situations” reveal that Swanson has few (maybe no) redeemable qualities, but at least he is consistently an asshole. He mocks his dying father’s male nurse, calls his sister-in-law a whore, and watches blankly when a woman he’s attempting to sleep with goes into epileptic shock in front of him. Swanson is pure, scatological id, a vessel of deep emptiness that is felt but never articulated. Still, he represents a kind of pure being, numbed by privilege past the point of desire to a flatlined state of emotional impotence. Swanson can’t connect, no matter how much he rubs his sweaty gut against humanity.
The Comedy could sink easily into mockery were it not for the sharp honesty of Swanson’s despair. This bares its teeth in the odd shape-shifting in which he occasionally indulges. Swanson is young, white, rich, and male, and he uses the assumed (and actual) privilege this conveys to fuck with people. He pretends to be a part of a landscaping crew to shame the waspy owners into letting the crew swim in their pool, and swans into a ‘hood bar like he owns the joint. When the black patrons ask where he comes from, his reply is that he’s “representing Williamsburg, bro” (watch the scene here). For Swanson to get his childish, self-loathing ass kicked, ‘tis a consummation devoutly to be wish’d. The refusal to recognize social boundaries is an entitlement, in Swanson’s case especially undeserved, and this bullshit truth seems on some pre-verbal level to infuriate and depress him. His steady trickle-down inheritance has turned Swanson into a bloated buffoon, able to live without responsibility or accountability, but also without meaning.
In an interview I did with Rick Alverson, he stated that he “didn’t want the movie to be very aesthetically pleasing.” Intentional or not, Alverson’s film looks pretty great. It’s a funny contrast: the typical specimen of the navel-gazing indie film, overly serious about everything except the production value, looks flat and dull, while Swanson’s Jackass-ery is silhouetted in warm light. The camerawork by DP Mark Schwartzbard is strong, though he keeps the frame tight and doesn’t show us much (a metaphor for Swanson’s claustrophobic worldview?). Rick Alverson is a musician as well as a filmmaker (long affiliated with the label Jagjaguwar) and the soundtrack of the film is also notably good. Could The Comedy be a summation, the film to end all slacker-focused indie films? Alverson nails the subculture, the nihilistic yuppie behind Swanson’s Smurf-blue shades and buttoned shirts, the brunching as a bloodsport. Like Swanson cycling around the velodrome like a madman, there’s nowhere left to go.