Forget about walking out of The Comedy —it's tough just to look away. The discomforting, hyper-focused character study of an entitled, fat thirtysomething (Tim Heidecker, of Tim and Eric's Awesome Show) on the cusp of his inheritance, Alverson's third feature plays like an early Adam Sandler vehicle as it might be re-imagined by Sofia Coppola. Despite its unapologetic and improvisational nature, The Comedy doesn't succumb to a lo-fi look, opting instead to render New York City as a glistening land of potential gone rogue, locking Heidecker's head into a series of close-ups that are as elegant as they are suffocating. Sure to agitate audiences when it hits, The Comedy is poised to ignite the VOD market, and if the timing works out it could even provide Rough House Pictures with a modest arthouse hit.
A lot of people are going to thoughtlessly disregard The Comedy as a sadistic exercise in audience punishment, a financially weaponized inside joke for which we are meant to serve as the punchline. If anything, the tricksy title was designed to encourage that reaction, but the key to cracking Alverson's sincere intentions is a matter of context: Despite a whole mess of laughs, (most of them sudden, awed and involving hobo semen), The Comedy isn't referring to itself, but rather to the parts of the hero's life that he chooses to amplify in order to sustain himself.
Heidecker is Swanson, a smug and shirtless man-child who lives on the sailboat he trawls across the East River, leaning over the helm like he's steering the thing with the loose fat of his stomach (whichever way he turns, it's always portly). Adrift between Brooklyn and Manhattan and at a generous remove from every living creature on Earth, Swanson floats around the city with a zombified stare, dressed as if he went to a Jimmy Buffett concert 20 years ago and still hasn't gone home. He loafs around with a meaty gang of miscreants (among them Eric Wareheim and LCD Soundsystem mastermind James Murphy), a group from which he seems to stand apart only because his dying father is about to bequeath him a sizable but vaguely defined estate.
Alverson has built a disclaimer directly into the film, as The Comedy kicks off with a spectacle that immediately warns audiences that nothing is off the table. It's an opening sequence that splits the difference between Antichrist and Old School, as Swanson and his buddies dance naked in slow-motion, their oil-soaked penises flapping in front of the camera—not since In the Mood for Love has something so illicit been so graceful. By the time Alverson offers up the title card as a reprieve, his audience has already been told to check their shame at the door.
The Comedy, improvised from a 15-page skeleton of the story, begins as a deceptively disconnected series of vignettes, isolated little skits that only later cohere into a single portrait. The scenes are designed for discomfort, and even with the gloss of a narrative film Alverson manages to sustains the sort of squirms that Sacha Baron Cohen requires a documentary veneer to achieve. Swanson is pathologically removed from any sort of emotional engagement, a state he sustains by honing in on something his target holds sacred and mocking it for sport. He pretends to be an employee of several different sorts, laughing at the thought that people could devote their time to such trivial endeavors. He ridicules cab drivers on two separate occasions, cruelly teases his sister-in-law for caring about his institutionalized brother, and chats up a party girl by discussing Hitler's supposed virtues as a come-on. It's only little kids who can see through his bullshit.
Light on story but jammed with incident, The Comedy sends a wrecking ball clear through the heart of modern remove. Filmmakers have long been using privilege as a means of exploring the ambient anxieties of a particular time, as it's the people who could do anything and don't that most explicitly articulate the paralyses that bind entire generations, regardless of class or status. Swanson doesn't seem like he'd be able to Google a pair of pants let alone put them on, and yet the extent to which his every gag erases the one that preceded it nails the way we see each other in a world where every encounter is a viral video waiting to happen. Heidecker's persona makes him a near-Platonic reflection of how we buy a little breathing room in a world that's so rich with possibilities, his hollow face a blank reminder that it's a lot easier to start laughing at everything than it is to stop. And make no mistake, The Comedy is genuinely hilarious, its uneasy tone ensuring that things are always lurking near a moment of sudden belly laughs—the film's most tense moment is seconds away from a Nick Nolte impression that had me in tears.
Heidecker's performance most immediately recalls Stephen Dorff in Somewhere, nudging Swanson a few inches towards growth (because traveling a full character arc may leave him winded). The Comedy believes in the protagonist far too much to ever grant him a real transformation, and Swanson's change is so deep it's practically tectonic—impossible to see, but you can still feel the ripples (fans of The 400 Blows will feel right at home). He arouses your pity and disgust in equal measure, never forcing you to choose between one or the other. Heidecker recognizes that the film doesn't depend on you liking him so much as it depends on you believing him, and there's not a false note in his work.
Heidecker doesn't have to go it alone, as he's assisted by a gaggle of strong supporting performances—James Murphy is great room tone, and rising indie ingenue Kate Lyn Sheil manages to imbue a first date with the suspense of Sorcerer. Perhaps the biggest help of all is provided by the music Alverson throws under all of his Heidecker close-ups, a mix that's sensitive but never ingratiating, with the brunt of the film delicately doused in the elegiac drone of William Basinski's "Disintegration Loops."
The Comedy walks a very fine line, and to the very end feels one major misstep away from imploding into a mess of beer-belly navel-gazing, but Alverson and Heidecker are locked into a shared wavelength, and their collective efforts elevate what could have been a posturing wank-fest into an essential portrait of a generation of people laughing so hard that they've forgotten the joke is on them.
Contact: Josh Braun firstname.lastname@example.org 212.625.1410
Cast: Tim Heidecker, Gregory M. Brown, Roxanne Ferris, Angus Hepburn, James Murphy, Eric Wareheim
Director: Rick Alverson
Screenwriter: Robert Donne, Rick Alverson
Producer: Mike S. Ryan, Brent Kunkle
Running time: 90 min.
Release date: TBD