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Friday, November 30, 2012
Free, White And 35 Going On 3 1/2
Tim Heidecker as Swanson in Rick Alverson's drama "The Comedy".
Omar P.L. Moore/PopcornReel.com
Friday, November 30,
In late October I stopped by a famed sports bar in San Francisco to watch game 2
of the World Series. A drunk white woman in her late 20s approached me,
saying, "it's about the black man, the black man!
You're black! The black race is . . . you're from Oakland, aren't you?
Right?" Her white female friend looked at me, embarrassed,
head as a third, unrelated patron, a white male, laughed lustily. I
don't know whether he laughed because he agreed with her or found it funny or
was uncomfortable. I told the drunkard (who said far more objectionable
and unprintable things than the quoted) that she was racist. She said she
wasn't. "Alcohol is great truth serum," I replied. A noticeable
change in her facial expression emerged. She looked more wounded by my
I immediately remembered the above episode as I watched "The Comedy", Rick
Alverson's deliberately unfunny, mostly uneventful but provocative, absorbing
and intimate film about a privileged 35-year-old Brooklyn-based white male named
Swanson (Tim Heidecker), who is on the verge of inheriting a lot of money as his
dad, whom he apparently hasn't had a relationship with, lies on his death bed.
The entire existence of Swanson (named after one of the film's producers), a
man-child who's had more than a few of that company's TV dinners -- consists of
aimlessly wandering the Big Apple consuming alcohol, berating blacks,
immigrants, cabdrivers, family members, saying sexist and racist things, playing
pranks that would be left on the cutting room floor of the TV series "Punk'd"
and irritating everyone who isn't a white male around his age.
Like a stand-up comedian who says socially inappropriate things and doesn't know
when to stop and get off the stage, Swanson, who praises Hitler or is at the
very least sympathetic to him, hurtles toward sociopathic tendencies. He's
deeply insecure, inadequate, hateful and pathetic. Swanson is an empty,
broken soul, a metaphorically dead man walking but there are signs the end
hasn't come just yet. He tries making connections to people, most of whom
are infirm or sleeping or almost dead, or as broken as he is (the equally
boorish white male buddies he pranks around with.) Swanson tries to be
useful, and wants so desperately to contribute something, anything (preferably
of value), to the contemporary New York that has moved on and passed him by, but
Swanson's awkwardness and alienation of human beings only highlights how much
more alienated he is from society.
"The Comedy" however, is too smart to align itself with Swanson, a character who
will disgust some. The film doesn't wallow in pity for him, nor does it
indict him. There's no moment of reckoning, which may frustrate viewers
accustomed to the safety of Hollywood-style retribution and lesson-learning.
The fascinating engine that drives "The Comedy", making it interesting is Mr.
Heidecker (the comedian of "Tim & Eric's Billion Dollar Movie"), whose
performance as Swanson in its quietest moments carries its most effective notes.
Swanson is crying for help and in the silences we see a small, lonely boy
trapped in a state of nothingness and inertia. The expression of
recognition, sadness and vulnerability in Mr. Heidecker's eyes are priceless
beats revealing a semblance of something residing deep beneath Swanson's deadpan
verbal violence, insecurity and self-loathing. And the woman at the sports
bar had that very same look when I told her alcohol had a truth of its own.
Swanson is oppressed by the rigors of everyday life even though he dropped out
of it long ago. As an ardent Darwinist he hasn't evolved beyond caveman
If "The Comedy" is uncomfortable viewing for some it could well be because
Swanson is someone we know or hear in a bar, or at work, or in our own home.
Or because he may be you. Many of us, whether drunk or not, have thought
or said the things that Swanson does here, or have wished to. We have
uttered aloud about wanting to shoot someone who has angered us. If not, we
have secretly (or not so secretly) wished for something vile to happen to them.
At Sundance in January Mr. Alverson's careful procedural of inanimate beings
received several walkouts, likely not due to being a poor effort but rather
because Swanson, like some of the figures of
"Compliance", may hit too close to home.
I'm not removed from making destructive comments. I've known many
Swansons. Swanson even looks from head to toe exactly like a lawyer I once
worked with. This lawyer would come in to work barely a few hours removed
from drunken exploits, and he'd get promoted, for I'm not sure what. He
too had the same type of air of entitlement that comes with being white and
well-moneyed in America. He made similar insults and insensitive comments.
A white man younger than I whom I worked with 20-plus years ago in the financial
securities industry in New York City would often call me "kid" until I
confronted him about it. He too would be promoted (twice). He did
very little work at all, to the point where it was an open joke in the office.
He was called a "slacker" (not unlike Richard Linklater's film), but among some
there was a seething contempt beneath the jovial name-calling he'd receive.
There's a million and one stories like that one that viewers of "The Comedy" could tell.
as Swanson in Rick Alverson's drama "The Comedy". Tribeca
Watching "The Comedy" I couldn't help thinking of Donald Trump, a miserable rich
white man who uses his billions to spew hate and irrationality against Barack
Obama, the black man currently president of the United States. Mr. Trump
comes from that same Swanson strain, that rude plucking and incessant poking
inquiry, the insulting, the cognitive dissonance and the questioning of things
that are self-evident. I thought of Mitt Romney, another rich white man
who says racist and sexist things, a man of privilege and entitlement,
insensitive, blissfully out of touch but not unaware of a changing society.
Being rich however, isn't the issue as much as being contemptuous of everyone
else but yourself. Swanson is figuratively and spiritually dead, and can
only speak about dead and ruptured things. He has lost touch with himself,
lost the ability to converse without being offending or hold a thought or say
something positive. How does a rich, white man in America communicate he
is lost, especially in a society reconstructed largely for his own comfort and
Swanson has his ways. He may as well be named Swansong, since in every
interaction he appears to be saying goodbye before he even says hello.
"The Comedy", which has only one humorous episode, cuts deeper than the litany
of foolhardy white male Hollywood slapstick comedies that make millions of
dollars, and thank goodness for that. Such comedies (and some dramas) only
reinforce an illusion of wink-wink silliness, while not addressing some of the
real issues lurking below the incorrect behavior disguised as humor. ("The
Change-Up" as a juvenile, mean-spirited "comedy" is vastly more out
of touch with America and reality than "The Comedy" ever could be.) Mr. Alverson's
drama of class lines and social commentary arguably represents one white
male's nervous response to the declining population of white males, a group in
which a number of its members whether young or old, rich or poor, alcoholic or
sober, are subconsciously or consciously thrashing, writhing, desperately
clinging to existence and relevance in an ever-changing America. (The
current highly hateful, anti-almost everything Republican Party in the U.S.
embraces such a posture, with its 19 House of Representative Committee chairmen,
all of whom are white males.)
Comedy comes from pain, and "The Comedy" is where pain resides almost entirely.
Mr. Alverson, who also co-wrote the film, sketches a brooding chronicle of an
isolated, anti-social cretin who has long left American society. Swanson
doesn't follow Timothy Leary's advisory -- he's never turned on or tuned in.
We don't know how Swanson got to where he is, although there are clues in
some of his rantings. Yet there's a paradox and
humanity to Swanson that makes such an unfiltered trough of white male banality
so relatable: Swanson nestles himself into an apathetic anesthetizing and
disconnection symbolic of today's iPad, iPhone, Android generation, some of whom
may purposely or subconsciously use such devices to avoid connection to humans.
The cowardly Swanson, ironically, is braver than the iPad crowd that includes
myself. He eschews the technology; he at least is stripped of pretense,
avoidance and fear. He is almost as a child, stripped bare, right down to
the thoughts and destructive ways some of those iPad users on the bus or subway
train choose not to confront. An over-stimulated, instant-gratification
society, while exciting, is also damaging, and invites not needing the
appreciable downtime to process one's responses or impulses so that when one
says offensive comments they arrive in an automated and reflexive way, as in,
"Where on earth did that remark come from?" It is that question
"The Comedy" attempts to tap into. And few American films these days even
try to dig beneath any surface. Swanson digs, confronting himself but does
so through wounding others emotionally. He isn't violent but there's an
unmistakable and persistent violence in his words and non-actions.
"The Comedy" is a more contemplative, less visceral take on life in New York
City than the abrasive, distressing Larry Clark film "Kids", but both films
belong on a double bill as effective statements about generational idleness and
callous disregard. Swanson is an antithesis of Mr. Clark's savage
characters, a softer anthropological creature who shrinks into himself, a lazy
bloated pig who works overtime to gain attention in the most crude and appalling
ways to fit in, not with his own peer group but with himself.
Sadly, Swanson is a character more human, fertile and truthful with himself or
others than many of us are. And that's scary. Yet he's also
in deep denial. Mr. Alverson invites us to investigate not only Swanson
but ourselves, and at the end of the day while "The Comedy" isn't a profound or
especially great film, it's an important character study about a man and a
generation struggling to ignite itself and aspire to something greater and more
meaningful than stasis. The final scene of "The Comedy", in contrast to
its mournful, slow-motion frat house opening, is its very best, a moment that
suggests rebirth and perhaps a better future for generations to come. This
film lingers long after it is over, as well it should. "The Comedy", a
film seemingly about nothing, ultimately leaves us thinking about everything.
(Note: David Gordon Green, a director who now forages deeply in making the
"dopey white guy" genre of comedy
"The Sitter", "Your Highness", "Pineapple
Express", is an executive producer of "Compliance" and "The Comedy", two
that reside in the kind of uneasy, confrontational place where his earlier,
finer films like
"Snow Angels", "All The Real Girls" and "George Washington"
were so good at being in.)
Also with: Eric Wareheim, James Murphy, Kate Lyn Sheil, Alexia Rasmussen, Gregg
"The Comedy" is not rated by the Motion
Picture Association Of America. It contains harsh insulting language, male
full frontal nudity and
two or three brief disturbing moments. The film's running time is one hour and 34 minutes.
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