Netflix Movie Month: "The Comedy" Review

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Indifferent to the notion of inheriting his father's estate, a Williamsburg guy passes the time with his friends; playing games of mock sincerity, and irreverence.
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Rating: NR
Length: 95 minutes
Release Date: January 21, 2012
Directed by: Rick Alverson
Genre: Drama

Far from what its title suggests, "The Comedy" is more of a tragic drama. The movie focuses on a jaded, wayward hipster named Swanson, played by Tim Heidecker. Swanson appears to have just enough money at his disposal to remain disenfranchised and unloved. However, the film is compelling enough that the viewer is forced to follow Swanson as he insults his way through the entire plot. In the end, it is difficult to despise Swanson any more than he appears to despise himself.

Swanson is waiting for his comatose father to die so that he can inherit his estate. In the meantime, the 35-year-old wastes his days working at menial jobs he doesn't need, playing cruel pranks on others with his hipster friends and luring women to his sailboat, which is moored off New York City.

The protagonist/antagonist drinks too much. He is overweight. His rants are homophobic, racist and misogynistic. He provokes little in the way of sympathy from the viewer or from any of the other characters. He is bored and volatile, with a clear aim to provide and anger anyone who he happens to encounter.

However, as the film progresses, it becomes clear that Swanson is conflicted over his inheritance. He suggests it is the result of his forefathers profiting from the slave trade and even claims his father's house is filled with furniture made of the flesh of slaves. While he visits his unconscious father at the hospital, he spends his time there chiding and ridiculing the nurse who cares for him.

Swanson's family problems extend to his brother, who has been institutionalized. The problems also plague his sister-in-law, whom he mocks and harasses until, toward the end of the movie, he appears to attempt to make peace with her. At one point in the movie, he wanders into another patient's room at the hospital. He combs the man's hair while he looks at his family photos. The patient bears a resemblance to Swanson's father, which suggests that he wishes he could experience some sort of a close relationship with his own father.

This scene stands in sharp contrast to the opening, a sad, disturbing passage in which Swanson and his equally privileged friends cavort nearly naked in a slow-motion, beer-drenched scene. After all, the men involved are middle-aged, despite the young, beautiful women they inexplicably attract. They appear to take great pleasure in their physical forms, almost in spite of the fact that their overall appearances are far from what society generally considers to be ideal in terms of the male physique. Swanson in particular seems to take a great deal of pleasure in showing off his considerable gut throughout the film.

It is surprising to discover that Swanson, who is mean and uncomfortable to watch, becomes an even more upsetting character when he is ganging up on hapless victims with his friends. Together, Swanson and his friends terrorize cab drivers and make a mockery of a local church, blowing out votive candles and horsing around in the pews. As Swanson and his friends insult more people with each passing minute, the viewer feels as if something terrible is bound to happen at any given moment.

Throughout "The Comedy," it seems certain that Swanson is destined to remain cut off from the rest of the humanity for the remainder of his days. He takes an apparent liking to a young female coworker who agrees to accompany him to his sailboat. She seems to want to have sex with him. When she begins experiencing a seizure, he just reclines and watches in clinical fascination rather than calling 911 or otherwise attempting to help her.

Perhaps this is why the film's finale, in which Swanson appears to experience a genuinely innocent and joyful connection with a young boy whom he encounters at the beach, is so unexpected.

"The Comedy" is not a comedy. Alverson contends that it is a critique of modern American culture, which, he says, is based on sarcasm, but which has no substance as a result. As such, the film succeeds. This is not a date film, nor is it a film to watch with your mother. However, it is a unique work. "The Comedy" tends to make its viewers uncomfortable, but not just because of the obnoxious behavior of the film's main character and his friends. The film elicits a great deal of discomfort for its suggestion that these characters are not at all unusual, given the culture in which they were raised.

Rating: 3 out of 5