Tragic Comedy

The Comedy hates you.

Okay, it probably doesn’t. But there are a few things about you that it really doesn’t like. First and foremost, it has utter contempt for the films that you watch, and taking the advice of the good Mr. Gandhi to heart, director Rick Alverson’s film has become the change that it wants to see in the world.

What does that mean, exactly? Well, that the plot is laid out for you grudgingly, at best. That the protagonist is defiantly and relentlessly unlikeable. That there’s a streak of subversive mischief in the use of almost every technical and story-telling device. That you’ll be treated to beer-sodden, slow-motion, full-frontal male nudity before the opening credits…and, perhaps most impressively, that the audience will only become more stress-gigglingly uncomfortable as the film continues.

Alverson says that The Comedy aims to remove the safety nets normally in place for a night at the movies. This means the safety of story structure; it means the safety of clearly defined morality; it means the safety of typical cinematographic and editorial techniques. It is a blunt-force assault on the viewer, an intended wake-up call hopeful for a future of greater diversity in film.  It’s a draining experience.

The thing is,it’s also very, very funny in a way that almost defies description.  Despite the endless disagreeability of the film, the audience laughed almost constantly through the screening.

The film follows Swanson, a listless mid-30s oaf, independently wealthy by virtue of a dying father, as he wanders lackadaisically through the world, stoically devoid of empathy for everyone around him. His objectives are short-sighted and largely instinctual; his achievements and failures instantly become inconsequential. He desires sex, drunkenness, and adventure, but seems so spiritually disconnected from each that the impetus towards them becomes alien. Whatever drives Swanson – and here, each individual viewer will probably discern something quite different – it doesn’t appear to be driving him towards happiness.

At the core of the film is the question of ambivalence: why does Swanson feel no sense of obligation – moral or personal to anyone that he meets? At best, he is mischievous, but there’s no denying the boundaries, or where he crosses them. Swanson is sexist, racist, abusive and relentlessly disrespectful, but if his words are of hatred there is none of it in his character. There’s no sense of malevolence in Swanson, which makes him all the scarier – he really might just not realize anything he does is wrong.

What makes The Comedy so fascinating is the way that we engage with it. When Swanson and his friends dance naked, pouring beer on each other, tucking their genitals Buffalo Bill-style, we laugh with familiarity; this is gross-out humour, something we know. But when he unleashes a totally disaffected three-minute torrent of lazy, toilet-humour abuse on his father’s nurse in the very next scene, we are only silent briefly. Then the laughs begin – guiltily perhaps at first, but eventually unabashed. Maybe the Family Guy generation has been taught that anything is funny if it goes on long enough. Regardless, we become complicit in the humour of the film. Almost every time we laugh, we do so with guilt, but it is this response – the powerless laugh of the inactive bystander – that empowers the perpetrators of real-life abuse.

Maybe we’re allowed to laugh because it’s a movie.

With almost every scene the obvious product of extensive improvisation by the actors, the role of Swanson is particularly unusual.  Played by comedian Tim Heidecker, whose own work revolves in no small part around breaking boundaries and creating discomfort, the role is a vindication of the actor’s bad behaviour, an opportunity to express ugliness from a place of both safety and power.  Freed from potential consequence by the fabricated conflicts of film, Heidecker is given a platform to explore the deepest and most unpleasant of real sentiments with the barrier of character and with the empowerment of that character’s fearlessness.  As Swanson does not fear in the film, so Heidecker has nothing to fear in his performance; at once cruel and somehow inquisitive, the vitriolic playfulness of the on-screen character is, we can imagine, a genuine glimpse at what badness might rest in some form or another in all of us.

The film is ultimately an indictment, if not of all of us, then of many.  What is superficially a critique of American hipster culture, or perhaps of white privilege, is aimed more deeply at a sort of implacable and cruel disinterest in males, a critique with much broader implications.  At the same time, the film is a fierce challenge to the movie-going public – get out of your comfort zone.

This is one to see in theatre, to watch people react to, to challenge your friends with.  It’s a film that leaves you with the good kind of bad feeling, and plenty to discuss.  “Difficult to watch” doesn’t always mean “rewarding and enlightening,” but for the engaged (and perhaps slightly adventurous) viewer, it will in the case of The Comedy.