"The Comedy" is not a comedy. Instead, it's an incredibly scathing indictment of ironic detachment. This is a truly nasty piece of transgressive cinema, partly an act of antagonism toward its audience. I don't think I've ever seen a film that hates its central character so much, yet it still asks us to stay with him for every single assaultive minute. We follow Swanson on his aimless adventures in cruelty, be it towards minorities, women, his family, and we have one question: what does it all mean? What exactly is "The Comedy" trying to say? I'm not here to tell you that I know, exactly, but I had a visceral reaction to this film. Swanson's inability to connect or truly interact with the people around him doesn't trigger anything close to sympathy, but rather, recognition. Perhaps the fact that I saw aspects of this character in myself made the experience of watching this film more disquieting.
The film is essentially one long string of intentionally cringe-worthy encounters in which Swanson uses his asshole veneer to separate himself from emotional attachment while still harboring a hidden desire to connect, as is hinted at in later scenes. Part of what makes "The Comedy" so thorny is that it has genuinely funny moments during which Swanson and company's assholedom is crystal clear, but we laugh anyway because, well, what they're saying is kind of funny. "The Comedy"'s propensity to sometimes make us laugh with the film's characters adds a level of audience complicitness that feels icky. A Nick Nolte impression towards the end of the film had me in absolute stitches. Tellingly though, it comes seconds before the film's most disturbing moment, where Swanson's pitiful lack of humanity is on full display.
I think "The Comedy" might have been made a more sympathetic case had Swanson's desire to change been more clear, but maybe the point is that his first 35 years of relentless entitlement has rendered him so emotionally stunted that such a fundamental change doesn't seem within his grasp. Tim Heidecker is surprisingly great here. I honestly think he gives a perfect performance in this film. Performance -wise, this movie doesn't hit a wrong note at all, actually. There are some surprising supporting players here, including LCD Soundsystem's James Murphy and Gregg Turkington (a.k.a. Neil Hamburger).
Judging from many of the responses to I've read to "The Comedy", I think some people are making some critical mistakes in viewing this film. Firstly, they 're expecting it to be a comedy. Though it is sometimes (problematically) funny, it most certainly is not a comedy. The title of the film is both a supreme act of trolling and a framework through which to view Swanson's behavior. If you're waiting for a barrel of laughs, it's not gonna come. Sorry, "Tim & Eric" fans. Secondly, they're making the mistake of believing that director Rick Alverson actually sympathizes with Swanson. Quite the contrary; he hates Swanson, and uses him as a stand-in for lazy, entitled, ironic douchebags everywhere. In case you didn't get the point, Swanson is from Williamsburg.
So why am I liking, not loving, "The Comedy"? I think it has mostly to do with fatigue. By the end of the movie I was pretty numb to Swanson and the film's overall tonal monotony. The film is only 94 minutes long, but I honestly felt like there were still scenes that could have been cut. I feel like the film would have been more powerful had the pity-to-hatred ratio been a bit higher with respect to its central character. I also found the use of William Basinski's 9/11-inspired "The Disintegration Loops" to be kind of heavy-handed here, to nitpick a little bit. Still, though "The Comedy" will doubtlessly repel many people, it is a unique experience that I found particularly thought-provoking.