The Comedy (2012)
Directed by Rick Alverson
The Comedy, the ironic title to a relentlessly ironic film, may appeal to fans of Borat. Yet this film goes beyond the mockumentary style of that film, asking us to believe that a series of sketches is a depiction of real life. The Comedy is an example of how a movie can be clever and well acted and still be fundamentally lacking in authenticity.
The antihero of the movie is a slacker/hipster named Swanson (Tim Heidecker), a bearded, pot-bellied character whose entire life is devoted to being obnoxious. He lives on a houseboat and cavorts with a group of male friends who share his taste for psychological pranks.
In the opening scene, we are privy to a bacchanal where these guys drunkenly dance around naked and grope at each other simulating sexual acts. Aside from the fact they are all in their mid-30s or older, the scene could have been shot at a frat party.
The rest of the movie follows these decidedly uncharming guys around as they engage in non-violent but not quite harmless pranks at the expense of taxi drivers, gardeners and other hapless victims (at least as they are portrayed here).
The underlying premise of The Comedy, to the extent that it can be said to have one, is that Swanson and his friends are wealthy or at least relatively affluent. They don’t have to work at 9-5 jobs, though Swanson takes on a dishwashing job for no apparent reason (except to harass his co-workers, of course).
The Comedy can be seen as an expose of the excesses of hipster culture. Yet I’m not sure that the subculture depicted here actually exists. They are perhaps meant to be a 21st Century version of the ne’er do well playboys or cads of much older films. Yet those type of characters took great pride in their personal appearance and cultivated a charming, debonaire aura. Even today’s hipsters usually try to look, well, hip. Swanson and his crew flaunt their lack of style and personal hygiene.
These are more like refugees from the 1978 film Animal House -if those characters aged but didn’t mature and had enough disposable income to avoid regular employment. They don’t seem to have the usual hipster fetishes for art openings, gourmet foods, alternative rock or the other activities you might see on Portlandia (if you’re not lucky/unlucky enough to live near real hipsters). They do, however, live in a state of perpetual irony -mocking everything and everyone at all times, including each other.
What I found most annoying about The Comedy is that many of the scenes simply didn’t ring true. At least in a scenario like the show Punk’d (and its predecessor Candid Camera), or Borat, it’s understood that we are watching scenes that are set up for an audience.
As drama or comedy, scenes require a certain sense of truth if they are to be accepted. The Comedy doesn’t really deliver on this count. For example, we watch as Swanson, a soft looking white guy, goes into a bar full of black men and proceeds to fearlessly make racially charged comments to everyone in the room. How likely is this?
Similarly, women seem to find Swanson attractive no matter how unappealingly he behaves. At his dishwashing job, he begins his seduction of a waitress by making blatantly offensive comments to her. This would more likely lead to his immediately losing his job than to her ultimately falling for his (non-existent) charms and eventually sleeping with him.
If The Comedy is saying anything at all (a dubious proposition), it’s that this is what you get when you take hipsterism too far. A bunch of completely unlikable, borderline sociopaths who go through life in a soulless haze of perpetual irony.
Yet it doesn’t even really say this much. It hedges, making Swanson borderline human towards the end -for no apparent reason, except because it’s a rule of cinema (even indie cinema, it seems) that characters are supposed to change over the course of the 90 or so minutes we get to spend with them.
Swanson and his friends are never established as bona fide people with motivations that make sense. Perhaps we could believe that one person, such as Swanson, might have a personality disorder that leads him to act as he does. But a whole cadre of friends who share these characteristics? Who are they and how did they get this way? Who supports their idle lifestyle? Swanson has a wealthy father who is about to die, but the others have no back story whatsoever.
The Comedy is, despite its basic emptiness, funny at times, in a similar way that a mindless action movie can provide moments of excitement. Yet it ultimately leads nowhere. Though, I suppose, that might be the whole point.