Billed by one audience member as “our generation’s La Dolce Vita,” Rick Alverson’s The Comedy isn’t quite as beautifully elegant as the Federico Fellini classic. But it’s depiction of disaffection, fraught with punishing close-ups and squirm-inducing behavior, is a convincing picture of a generation in crisis, with a group of artists disconnected from both feeling and their art. All this from a movie that opens with tubby men in briefs spraying beer on each other in slow motion.
Swanson (Tim Heidecker) is a different breed of man-child, one whose immaturity exhibits itself in a kind of half-joking cruelty toward everyone, including his circle of like-minded friends. Straddled with a dying father and a considerable estate, he hides from his problems inside a floating metaphor (his yacht, bobbing along in the East River) anesthetized to most elements of everyday experience, encased in a protective shell of irony and sarcasm. This shell is represented both sartorially (ever-present blue sunglasses, jokey combinations of cut-off shorts and too-small button-downs) and in Swanson’s friends, which include Tim and Eric collaborator Eric Wareheim and a host of familiar musicians, from James Murphy of LCD Soundsystem to Richard Swift and Will Sheff.
Considering all this, the film is continuously in danger of feeling either too cute or too abrasive, but Alverson pulls it off, incorporating a few surprisingly tender scenes in the process. These are folded in with just enough subtlety, as The Comedy spends most of its time either gorging on its characters antisocial behavior and explores Swanson’s half-serious attempts to pierce his own thick hide, dropping in on strange hospital patients and taking a minimum-wage job as a dishwasher. The two sides meet when he takes up with a co-worker, a waitress who’s capable of handling and rebutting his constant barbs.
The film’s exploration of its Williamsburg setting and the jaded characters within it is mostly successful, though its climactic scene, where a potential connection is destroyed by Swanson’s insistent deadness, goes too far, not in terms of shock, but because it hammers home the character’s reality in a disappointingly blunt fashion. Controversial set pieces, dabbling in casual racism and misogyny, are otherwise well handled, a fact validated by the spate of walkouts at Sundance. These moments can even be viewed structurally, the transposition of one character’s nature onto the film itself, resulting in an incisive character study that thrives on pushing people’s buttons.
More tangentially music-related cinema comes by way of Los Chidos, which is equally interested in pushing buttons, but far less delicate about it. Directed by Omar Rodriguez-Lopez, lead guitarist of the Mars Volta, the film is big, loud, colorful, and disgusting, a swirling cesspool of gross-out nonsense presented as satire.
Set in an unnamed region of Mexico, Los Chidos takes aim at the Gonzalez family, who own and sometimes operate a ramshackle auto-repair shop. Spending most of the time stuffing their faces in front of the television, the family is ugly, loutish, and lazy, qualities which mask deeper patterns of incest, abuse, and murder. Paired with rough acting and frequently repetitive music on the soundtrack, this makes for a nice-looking movie that’s otherwise unbearably ugly. Even supposedly sympathetic characters, like the Gonzalez’s closeted gay son, come off as ridiculous buffoons, subjected to an equal amount of spite.
While the film positions itself as an attack on Latin American traditions of misogyny and homophobia, any whiff of a reasonable argument is lost in the disordered muddle it stirs up. Implementing the same kitchen-sink approach he often uses with his music, Rodriguez-Lopez indulges in an orgy of menstrual blood, shit-eating, and baby consumption, resulting in an unruly mess whose only virtue is its neatly composed cinematography. An American savior and an abused young wife eventually push things toward some type of plot, but by this point the film has become such an indulgent disaster that it’s difficult to care.
SXSW runs from March 9—18.