The tragedy of Rick Alverson's The Comedy | Bleader

The tragedy of Rick Alverson's The Comedy

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We try not to double-review things around here, and I pretty much concur with the capsule review Ben Sachs wrote for Rick Alverson's The Comedy when it screened last fall at Facets Cinematheque. But I was sufficiently curious about this indie effort to take a look when it arrived on DVD, padded out with some (justly) deleted scenes and an unenthusiastic commentary track featuring Alverson and star Tim Heidecker (of the cable comedy show Tim & Eric Awesome Show, Great Job!). The odd thing about listening to their desultory conversation is that it's indistinguishable from much of the movie, in which a gaggle of fat, wealthy hipsters in Brooklyn serenade each other with arias of sarcasm and protect themselves with the armor of irony.

The Comedy is definitely not a comedy, and from the opening scene you can tell it's not a wise choice for a date movie either. As a silky soul ballad plays on the soundtrack, half-naked men in an advanced state of drunkenness boogie together in slow motion, their friends egging them on as they pour beer on each other, strip off their underpants, and shake their jiggling guts around. The men at this little living room party are scuzzy losers pushing 40, while the women are young and pretty, so apparently the guys all have plenty of cash to throw around. Shortly afterward the pudgy Swanson (Heidecker) sits in a bedroom drinking scotch, eating cheap sandwich cookies, and needling the male nurse who tends to his brain-dead but filthy rich father. "Have you ever had to deal with a prolapsed anus?" Swanson asks the nurse. "Chief? Did they teach you that, in nurse school? You and the ladies get that lesson?" This sets him off on a little routine: "'Anus & Andy.' Nothing? 'Famous Anus Cookies.' Anything there?" The nurse stares at him impassively.

Like Heidecker's other big-screen adventure, Tim & Eric's Billion Dollar Movie, and a lot of supposedly hip TV comedy like 30 Rock or Arrested Development, Swanson's spiel is clever without being funny, precisely because it's offered in such a spirit of contempt and condescension. You can hear the same sort of smirking repartee any night of the week in bars across Logan Square. On the commentary track Heidecker describes this sort of talk as "life shtick," explaining that he and his friends might "actually live in a bit, or we live in a sense of irony, and use irony and use a character voice in the way we express ourselves." Earlier generations called this "clowning around," though it may have lacked the modern element of imagining oneself onscreen.

The premise of a comatose father and a slumming, embittered heir naturally calls to mind Bob Rafelson's Five Easy Pieces (1970), which gave Jack Nicholson his first mature starring role and became a baby boomer touchstone. In fact Swanson's obnoxious treatment of the nurse has its antecedent in the other movie's famous diner scene, when a waitress asks Nicholson if he wants her to hold the chicken on his order and he growls, "I want you to hold it between your knees!" Unlike Five Easy Pieces, however, The Comedy doesn't have a scene that cracks the hero open emotionally and shows both the roots and the limits of his rebellion. That just wouldn't be cool.


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