Friday, November 30, 2012

The Comedy

Free, White And 35 Going On 3 1/2
Tim Heidecker stars in The Comedy
Tim Heidecker as Swanson in Rick Alverson's drama "The Comedy".
Tribeca Film
Omar P.L. Moore/        Follow popcornreel on Twitter FOLLOW                                           
Friday, November 30, 2012

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,
shaking her 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 latter comment.

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 status. 

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.

Tim Heidecker as Swanson in Rick Alverson's drama "The Comedy". Tribeca Film

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 security?  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 2012 films 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 Turkington.

"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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