Film Reviews

The Comedy Rick Alverson

Rating - 4/10

If Dante evokes the "divine," then Rick Alverson's The Comedy categorizes the "profane;" it's yet another supposed commentary in a continuing series on affluent American ennui, excess, and irony that has further Italian roots in the cinema of Federico Fellini, Michelangelo Antonioni, and Marco Ferreri.  With a self-defeating tone, the film is a character portrait of pointlessly cruel, peripatetic, pot-bellied man-child in aqua-frame sunglasses, Swanson (Tim Heidecker), and his equally inconsiderate gang of aimless, almost-phantom friends (including cohort Eric Wareheim and LCD Soundsystem's James Murphy) in New York City.

The difference between it and the satirical and existential works of the 1960s is simply a heightened disregard for everything even in the manner of its creation.  Because the film assumes its viewers are desensitized, it lazily offends with its frequent and pointless bouts of scatological humor and racism.  The occasional somber, driftless interludes between Swanson's routine of binge-drinking, vomiting, and continual harassment (that he views as some kind of performance art) are actually the antithesis to its aspiring insight, reinforcing the film's pretension.  Although it's difficult to determine in his ironic posturing, eventually he desires to feel something and rise above indifference by creating circumstances in his life that may have consequences.  Through this so-called "journey," the film only distances itself or slightly redirects his ingrained habits.  Perhaps there is an air of regret and feeling to Swanson's demeanor but in the absence of genuine sentiment; its characters are disregarded and scorned much like Swanson treats his interactions and environment.  As it stands, the message is that aging hipsters have only one known response to prove self-worth to each other.  It's incorrect; in Alverson's attempt to subvert stereotypes with intense negativity, The Comedy humorlessly reinforces them.

Production for the film was supported by indie record label Jagjaguwar, so it's not surprising that attention is drawn to its hip, hypnotic, yet subdued soundtrack.  The film opens with a muted montage of a drunken frat-type orgy scored with Joe and Donnie Emerson's soulful Baby; the clash of the images and audio is starkly disconcerting, as it exemplifies the prevailing confusion of messages and insincerity.  Next up in Swanson's gluttonous daily life, he is seen presiding over his father on a life-support machine while munching on cookies, drinking hard liquor, and questioning a nurse (Seth Koen) about a "prolapsed anus" in complete deadpan.  His rhetorical joke is dead-on-arrival, but the unrelenting verbal assault is too calculated to be arbitrary and predicts forthcoming taboo acts.  And yet, his instigation seems simply apathetic.  A slovenly game of whiffleball and circular bike-riding is later captured in silent montage except for the score, an excerpt of William Basinski's Disintegration Loops, which is an apt choice of music, but one that is never developed or reiterated.  Even with the artistic flourish that recalls the opening images, The Comedy never properly assembles its material in an emotionally stirring way, thus failing to demonstrate a reason to care about anything.  If its true focus and motivation is to stir Swanson and the viewer to self-reflection from apathy with its crudeness, it never rises above the lewd sum of its parts.

The Tribeca Film DVD release provides some additional clues to Alverson's aspirations, though, dividing The Comedy into twelve distinct chapters that are titled with single nouns or verbs as if they are stages of a grieving process.  From "Provocation," to "Performance," "Drifting," "Representing," and "Exertion," this designated structure seems to pitch the film as vignettes of a futile quest for identity and meaning with Swanson unsympathetically and unsuccessfully assuming various social disguises.  In one of the last brutal scenes, a young café coworker (Kate Lyn Sheil) has an epileptic seizure on his house-boat; the incident elicits no response as seen in his blank expression at extreme close-up.  The scene quietly concludes with her disembarking on the dock and moving into an unfocused sea of lights.  But maybe the depth of the film can be acquired from an early party scene where another nameless woman (Alexia Rasmussen) broaches the subject of socialism to Swanson.  In an attempt to mock her or sound like he's probing some fundamental philosophy (feudalism), he aloofly admits, "There's this theory that there's a large percentage of the population of human beings on the planet who don't have conscious thought."  The words obviously evoke himself, but it's not even clear that Alverson understands its ironic implications- an assertion by a pretentious monster who is not so much the product of his environment but a numb parasite turning the environment into his own product for consumption.  The Comedy wants to speak to a part of society that lacks self-discipline and genuine emotion, but this intention is undercut by its self-mockery and condescending character.