Coming soon: Rick Alverson's unsettling The Comedy



Eric Wareheim, James Murphy, and Tim Heidecker, looking apathetic in a church
  • Eric Wareheim, James Murphy, and Tim Heidecker, looking apathetic in a church
"The film is infuriating by design," I wrote of Maurice Pialat's We Won't Grow Old Together a couple months ago, and I could say the same thing of Rick Alverson's The Comedy, which opens this weekend at Facets Multimedia. This New York-shot independent feature works hard to present its characters as unpleasant, bigoted, infantile, and cruel. If it displays anything resembling sympathy, it's for the walk-on players who have to put up with the protagonists. And like much of Pialat's work, The Comedy purposely lacks a recognizable dramatic structure that might safely contain the awful (yet acutely observed) behavior. The viewer is forced to wallow in it, then organize his thoughts afterwards.

Clearly, it's not a movie for everyone. Reviewing it last week for the New York Times, A.O. Scott dismissed it as a joke on its audience, and other reviewers have been similarly hostile. The Comedy intends to provoke feelings of spite in hopes that they lead to more constructive thought, though it never suggests how the constructive thought might proceed. Scott called it "a case study in hipster obnoxiousness that takes no critical distance from its subject." I think he intended that as a put-down, but it's a pretty good assessment of what makes the movie so unsettling.

As you may have read, The Comedy stars some well-known comedians, Tim Heidecker and Eric Wareheim of Cartoon Network's Adult Swim programming and the recent cult feature Tim and Eric's Billion Dollar Movie. For much of the film, they seem to be doing their familiar schtick—playing at gestures of social awkwardness and cultural insensitivity so that one laughs at their audacity more than anything else. But since they're doing this stuff in a dramatic context—playing overprivileged Brooklyn layabouts who get their kicks from offending everyone around them—their deliberately unfunny jokes simply register as mean.

It's as much of a hall-of-mirrors movie as Spike Jonze and Charlie Kaufman's faux-autobiographical Adaptation. Alverson wants us to ask whether a critique of a parody of bad taste represents heightened self-awareness or its opposite. Media savvy to the point of desensitization, Alverson's characters regurgitate obscenities so blithely that they render them meaningless. But in so doing, they can't even sound sincere when complimenting their friends. This is the result, The Comedy suggests, of extreme cultural insulation: nothing feels real anymore, particularly the experience of people less fortunate than you. (Scott notes that Heidecker's character is particularly cruel to "anyone who is a woman or who works for a living.")

These would-be pranksters only humiliate themselves. There's a devastating scene where Heidecker, Wareheim, and James Murphy (of LCD Soundsystem) go to a small Catholic church and try to be as blasphemous as they can, doing childish impressions of Gregorian chants, blowing out prayer candles, and the like. No one seems to notice them: the devout have much better things to do than express offense at overgrown children.

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