The line between art and entertainment is often blurry, especially when it comes to film. There are other times, however, when the contrast becomes perfectly clear, and if you ever sit down to watch The Comedy, you will know exactly what I am talking about.
Tim Heidecker plays Swanson, a 35-year-old Brooklyn hipster who has presumably spent his entire life living off of family money. When we first meet him, he sits beside his father’s comatose body, eating cookies and drinking whiskey. Unfazed by the gravity of the situation, he taunts and insults the attending nurse by inquiring in great detail about his father’s bodily functions.
It only gets worse from there. Swanson has no job and lives in a small houseboat in the East River. He drinks (often), flirts with and occasionally sleeps with women, and hangs out with his equally detached friends. He is a man without function to himself or to society at large. While he is certainly an alcoholic, director Rick Alverson wisely withholds comment on it. The Comedy does not presume to know the cause of his drinking. Instead, it is portrayed as just another of his efforts to transcend his reality, none of which succeed. He is terrified of being honest with another human being; in the few instances that he tries to connect, he quickly reverts back to insults and poor, often offensive attempts at humor.
It is a brave performance by Heidecker, whose comedy background comes in handy. Swanson thinks he is hilarious, and it is implied that he and his friends fancy themselves comedy aficionados. But the days of Jerry Lewis and Bob Hope are gone; much of modern humor has a furiously dark element to it, so much so that someone like Louis C.K., who recently riffed about having sex with a dead child, could be considered mainstream. Swanson has all of the darkness of those kinds of comedians but none of the talent nor the ambition.
One could make a conventional drama about such a character, but The Comedy chooses a road less traveled. Alverson gives us no respite, not even for a moment, from Swanson’s worst impulses; the camera often holds him in close-up, and as viewers, we have no escape. Precedents for this type of character exist in the great anti-heroes of 1970s cinema, but characters like Bobby Dupree (Five Easy Pieces) and Travis Bickle (Taxi Driver) had more substantial moments of humanity. We saw the way their actions impacted others and got a larger sense of who they were. The Comedy confronts us with the vileness of its anti-hero and forces us to either sympathize or distance ourselves, neither of which leads to a pleasant viewing experience.
But that’s why this is art, not entertainment. The Comedy straps us to this character and then pushes him off a cliff. Make no mistake, this character is dying in every sense of the word, Whether he will drown in the river, drink himself into oblivion, or crash his bike into a moving vehicle, the specter of disaster hangs over his every waking moment. The filmmakers document this agony but rely on us to make something out of it. Are Swanson and his buddies representative of a generation comprised of unfeeling, disaffected hipsters? If so, what does the film say about that generation? That it has no sense of purpose? That a sense of impending doom has rendered them paralyzed? Or is it simply that they drink too much?
If the definition of a commercial film is one that seeks to reaffirm the status quo, then The Comedy provides its absolute counterpoint, offering no answers and barely any concrete questions. This is film art of the highest order and one of the most challenging experiences you will have in a movie this year.
My Rating: See it in the Theater
Note: The Comedy is currently in theaters and also available on Video on Demand.