Reviewed in this essay: The Comedy, written by Rick Alverson, Robert Donne, and Colm O’leary. Directed by Rick Alverson. Starring Tim Heidecker, Eric Wareheim, and James Murphy. Running Time: 94 minutes. Available for Download on Itunes immediately.
Tim Heidecker and Eric Wareheim are the two most interesting comedians working in America today. Best known for their sketch show Tim and Eric Awesome Show, Great Job!, Heidecker and Wareheim incorporate into their ingeniously polarizing material what has to be one of this generation’s most definitive cultural cornerstones: trolling. What does it mean to troll? Take a quick youtube perusal of the duo’s interviews with reporters. The pair simply refuse to answer any questions seriously, but instead constantly search for ways to subvert the very form of the interview itself. As they try to push the reporter closer and closer to the breaking point, the narcissistic culture of fame worship (of which celebrity interviews are a part) is revealed in all of its hollow stupidity.
The Comedy features Heidecker as Swanson, an unemployed, 40-year-old alcoholic who is on the verge of inheriting a fortune from his dying father. Swanson wastes sun-soaked Williamsburg days drinking and telling jokes with his friends, who seem equally as resigned as he is. Swanson and company play pick-up baseball, insult cab drivers, and jump across pews in empty churches, all for a break in the ennui before the drinking begins. An opening slow-motion montage of fat, aging, beer soaked bodies in full dance-off ecstasy is about as happy as these losers get.
But it’s a darker film than this. When not with his friends, Swanson seduces young women he seems to have nothing but contempt for. That is, when he’s not busy trying to molest his sister-in-law, insult his dying father, or just while away his time, isolated on his boat. To director Rick Alverson’s credit, never once does he allow Heidecker to show the audience his warm, boyish smirk. Tim and Eric’s comedy outside this film never seems mean spirited: below their angry, impetuous facade lie knowing smiles that they flash every so often, just to tell us it’s okay, we’re all in on this joke together.
But none of that redemptive soulfulness comes through in this film. If you took the man-boy bouts of furious anger from Tim and Eric’s comedy and stripped them of their fundamental humanity, you would have the characters in Alverson’s film. It is as if Alverson directed Heidecker to isolate the dark, burningly hostile side of his comedic persona and drop the rest.
The result is a film that doesn’t even hint at a way out for the miserable Swanson. And that is what makes The Comedy absolutely compelling, if sometimes difficult to watch. We have been conditioned, as filmgoers, to expect the salvation of our on-screen counterparts time and again. Alverson’s film bravely tells us, “No, some people are truly as damaged and hopeless as this.”
The message is clear: believe in something, strive for something, be better than the listless culture of hollow irony presented here. It is a message our generation badly needs to hear.