The Comedy is the latest entrant into America’s proud tradition of Male Arrested Development Cinema which ranges from the hyper-conservative dreck pumped out by the Apatow Gang (Judd, Rogen et al) to the aggressively innocuous and sometimes funny Will Ferrell Gang (Will,& JCReilly). What The Comedy team – writer/director Rick Alverson and co-writers Robert Donne and Colm O’Leary – bring to the table is a dark, ironic swipe at a few of the recent “generations” – X, Y, Millennials. Its main target is the white, privileged slacker guy. The film focuses entirely on Swanson, a privileged, Brooklyn hipster who wastes his days in alcohol and banter with his buddies while he waits out the string on his rich dad to die. Swanson is played with restrained maniacal genius by Tim Heidecker, the mute fiancee in Bridesmaids which was a hyper-anti-feminist tract dressed up in the usual bait-and-switch tactics of the Apatow Gang – but that is a whole other enchilada. (Guess who CAN’T HARDLY WAIT for This is 40?)
Heidecker’s Swanson spends the entire film wandering around with nothing to do so to amuse himself he enjoys pushing the boundaries of social conventions to their extremes – this is where the funny is, in the situations themselves and the morals they slam up against, not in any of the jokes or attempts at jokes. Here is where the film uses the conceit that Swanson is just some privileged asshole who mocks and ridicules everyone and everything he sees. What a jerk, right? Yes and no. The Comedy runs headlong into scenes and situations most people would never have the guts to do personally yet everyone probably has done in the comforts of their own class and race peer groups. There is scene where a bored Swanson drops into a predominantly black bar filled with black guys, he then proceeds to want to hang out with them, get to know them and ironically “feel” what it’s like to be black. Now, isn’t anytime some hipster or privileged white person who cops black culture in an ironic way doing this same thing?
Think of that great scene in the classic film Office Space where Michael Bolton is cranking some hardcore rap in his car, singing along with all of the line until he spots a black person in the car next to which immediately causes him to turn down the rap and he gets all awkward and scared that he might be fond out. There is a lot to unpack there although I think you can get the gist of it. Swanson, through either being an asshole or just a fearless prick rushes headlong into the same experience yet he does it alone, in front of a bunch of black guys who are drinking. Now the film has some cunning editing with ellipses that rarely show a reaction to Swanson’s provocative antics yet the steady accumulation of these embarrassing and humiliating exchanges accrue momentum without easy resolutions. They function as a way to turn the white privilege back on it’s dark, ironic self revealing that there just might not be anything there. A void. An emptiness. All that is there is a shallow consumerism drenched with booze and the constant search for the next thing, the next party, the next thing to buy, to consume. Yeah, no one’s laughing but come on, this is getting excruciating, maybe some of the scenes are hitting too-close-too-home for some white folks in the audience.
Christy Wampole recently wrote an op-ed in the NYTimes called ‘How to Live Without Irony.’ She raises several interesting points in regards to the ironic lifestyle which is represented in the shorthand by the ‘hipster’-ideal which seems to be so played out that it has now become a caricature or stereotype. She says in regards to the ironic posture:
First, it signals a deep aversion to risk. As a function of fear and pre-emptive shame, ironic living bespeaks cultural numbness, resignation and defeat. If life has become merely a clutter of kitsch objects, an endless series of sarcastic jokes and pop references, a competition to see who can care the least (or, at minimum, a performance of such a competition), it seems we’ve made a collective misstep. Could this be the cause of our emptiness and existential malaise? Or a symptom?
Her thesis that the ironic posture is basically a way to not feel is an intriguing one, especially in light of the character of Swanson. He floats around in his haze without much connection to family and friends. The equally sad hipster friends (yes, one of them is THE James Murphy of LCD Soundsystem fame)he banters around with which of course has one beta-dog who takes stick from all of the gang. He doesn’t seem willing or able to connect with women, even though he manages to lure a few out to his boat. He doesn’t seem to care about anything at all which must lead to his aggressive behavior with strangers – he is provoking them to get a reaction, a feeling, something, anything at all. His stunts with those far below him on the class ladder come off instantly as dickish yet somehow behind these taunts and jibes lies the roots of white, male privilege being called out by him yet…..nothing ever happens to him. The scenes end without resolution. The bad guy never gets his comeuppance.
Or does he?
He takes a job as a dishwasher and instantly begins a passive-aggressive banter with a young white waitress. He eventually gets her back to the house boat he lives on in the harbor (metaphor alert!). They drink, have a smoke and he makes her chuckle, very close to the first LOL he gets in the movie. Then comes one of the movie’s most controversial scenes which I will not ruin here but this is clearly his comeuppance. The picture belowreferences that scene, which will be made painful clear when you see the film.
The Comedy is truly one of the most polarizing indie films of the year, right up there with the brilliant and difficult film The Color Wheel. We need more movies that push us from our cozy, ironic ideological stances. If you watch The Comedy and truly hate it – like A.O. Scott of the NYTimes–that’s a good thing sometimes. How often do you see movies that can stir up any emotions these days, good or bad? Not too get all Tyler Durden here but we don’t need more brain-dead action hero movies and fantasy crap all of the time. Sometimes we need to look in the mirror and interrogate ourselves and the culture around us. The Comedy does that, just don’t expect it to make you LOL.
P.S. Keep your eyes peeled for Neil Hamburger sans dirty tux.