‘Comedy’ falters for lack of humorous characters

By Sam Flancher

“The Comedy,” directed by Rick Alverson, begins with detached pretension. Its spoiled main character, a Brooklyn hipster named Swanson, played by alternative comedian Tim Heidecker (one half of the comedy duo Tim and Eric), sits in a hospital next to his affluent, dying father. His apparent boredom allows him to hurl vulgarities and a few ill-timed comments about the awful nature of his father’s nurse’s daily activities. The attack is humorless and unnecessary, revealing Swanson to be an unsympathetic, indulgent lout. The film continues in this vein, chronicling the irredeemable indecencies of a man crushed

by entitlement.

“The Comedy,” which infuriated crowds at the Sundance Film Festival, is an endurance contest for audiences because of its wholly unsympathetic characters. Swanson, who resided in Brooklyn’s trendy Williamsburg neighborhood, spends his days reveling in his dying father’s wealth, drinking with his friends and insulting members of the working class. It’s an exercise in observation meant to be a record of the Williamsburg hipster population’s inability to deal with its own privilege.

Unfortunately, the film offers little in the way of examination, opting to meander alongside its main character. The story is told with the same cold, critical detachment with which Swanson lives his day-to-day life. Long takes of his revolting behavior give the film an air of self-importance, and its complete rejection of commentary limits its relevance. Why are we watching this man wallow in boredom? Perhaps the film was constructed as a perfect marriage of form and content: a self-indulgent character examined with self-indulgence.

The film seems to identify Swanson’s crippling ineptitude as a kind of social disease. Though no other character garners as much of the film’s attention as Swanson, a community of equally sedated friends (James Murphy, Eric Wareheim and Neil Hamburger) sometimes share the screen.

Numerous scenes with Swanson’s friends reveal them to be as apathetic as he is. They spend their time berating taxi-drivers, drinking in excess and aimlessly biking around the city. This proves that Swanson’s privileged degeneracy exists elsewhere, creating a kind of community of overprivileged layabouts.

Such scenes are among the film’s best, as they finally give the camera something to explore. Swanson becomes indicative of a larger social phenomenon—bratty, infantile, parentally subsidized adults. Yet the film ignores this fertile ground and lazily drifts back to Swanson as its singular focus.

Above all, “The Comedy” is a study of mood. Swanson’s apathy, echoed in the film’s style, remains constant throughout. The boredom of its main character dominates the entirety of every scene. It occasionally stumbles across an interesting idea, but those moments are few and far between. Its refusal to comment makes much of the film feel as banal as the world it chronicles.