The barrel-gutted, foul-mouthed protagonist of Rick Alverson’s The Comedy is Swanson (Tim Heidecker), a filthy rich man-child who spends most of his workless hours floating on a small yacht in New York Harbor. He makes occasional trips ashore to prank gleefully through Brooklyn’s most gentrified neighborhoods with aging friends (Eric Wareheim among them), or to imbibe malt liquor at his comatose father’s bedside, or to seduce hipster ingénues with his putatively racist and misogynist deadpan. One may wonder what more a porky thirtysomething could ask for. Yet Swanson has become so starved for mutually invested attention that he’s taken to hurling himself impishly through the world in search of emotional candor at any price.
No middle-class sanctuary escapes his pealing adolescence: He trades surreal dick jokes over brunch and sullies church pews with clownish tomfoolery. He delights in “touring” proletariat vocations such as gardening and cab-driving whenever the whim to do so strikes, then retreats back into safety of jerky needling after the gambits bore him. (He suspiciously infiltrates a posh backyard, for example, posing as a landscaper and begging untowardly for a swim in the stunned homeowner’s pool.) But from the get-go, this insolent kidding is understood as a ridiculously handicapped attempt at shattering social estrangement with insult and trickery, presumably so that any resultant raw nerves can be converted into a brief bond of sorts.
When his hideous routines fail to disarm their target audiences, Swanson is left begging for reactions before stoic faces. He launches butt joke after butt joke toward his father’s unamused male nurse, punctuating each with a request for acknowledgement: “Famous Anus Cookies…anything there?” Later, he stalls the discussion of sober family matters with his sister-in-law (Liza Kate) with a Southern-drawled bit about upholstering furniture with “slave penises and slave vagina.” “You know that was funny,” he pleads as she grimaces. And Swanson is funny, not only because of the frantic creativity behind his transgressions, but also because of his cockeyed commitment to negotiating attention with them. The abrasive gags he and his friends commit are less intended for self-amusement than for continual proof that they exist. However shameful it is to be uncomfortably dismissed by one’s peers, anger and rejection just barely qualify as human contact.
There’s little more to the movie than these increasingly existential antics, and yet Swanson’s angst undoubtedly appropriates the meta-narrative of choice for many American independent films of the last five years about post-graduate, pre-career adults—stories wherein disenchanted hipsters find a piece of themselves by pushing against the expectations of their environment. Swanson’s socioeconomic privilege is not unlike that of Lena Dunham’s wayward youths, and he confuses recklessness with growth as do the anxiously aging femmes in Miranda July’s The Future and Sarah Polley’s Take This Waltz. PBR cans and erstwhile LCD Soundsystem frontman James Murphy make mostly atmospheric cameos here as in Noah Baumbach’s Greenberg, which also portrayed gray-haired hip-sarcasm. The Comedy’s painfully superficial male relationships furthermore recall those of Kelly’s Reichardt’s films, with the slow-mo, testicular groping of an opening beer wrestling sequence inverting Old Joy’s frighteningly intimate boy-on-boy back massage. Both scenes imply that haptic closeness pays few emotional dividends between friends when their conversation remains mechanical and repetitive.
Swanson’s debt to other filmic traditions has been cited elsewhere: The New Yorker’s Richard Brody pithily describes The Comedy as “Arthur meets Jackass,” a fair approximation of sketch-like moments wherein the character circumvents his stifling wealth by moonlighting as a dishwasher. The sense in which Swanson rubs up against the limitations of his counter-cultural zeitgeist, however, may link him more aggressively to Richard Lester’s Petulia. That movie explored the menacing side not only of social revolution circa 1968, which manifests itself as everything from promiscuity to playing a euphonium for the hell of it, but of the same era’s zany film-grammatical conventions as well. (Several dizzying party scenes and a shuffled timeline preclude comprehension of the basic plot.) Alverson and Heidecker similarly approach the various rings of hipster-dom hell with the intention of spoofing the milieu’s insularity and its compromised epiphanic potential. Is Miranda July’s human sculptural stretchy-shirt dance to a bombinating Beach House song in The Future any less self-indulgent than the way Swanson rents a bewildered cabbie’s taxi for 20 minutes, then abandons him with an angered pedestrian?
The title character of Petulia is a post-hippie who never quite experiences the swinging ’60s without the fear of male domination; Swanson is a post-hipster who never experiences irony without desire. And so the pampered, porcine prankster has awkwardly made irony an expression of his desire. Every scatological gag is an intimate strategy; every racist remark is a repressed need escaping him like a sour gas. And our emotional response to his behavior is, likewise, necessarily alloyed. Swanson does not amuse us in spite of the pity he inspires but because of it. Since laughter is one of the few forms of sympathy he can absorb, we can’t help but gratify him, even if its ultimate deliquescence implies ambiguous doom.