Keep Your Distance
by Jeff Reichert
Dir. Rick Alverson, U.S., Tribeca Film
Rick Alverson’s The Comedy is the latest in a long tradition of films that adhere to a program of aesthetic distancing in order to level scathing sociocultural critique. This is a strategy that’s certainly borne fruit throughout cinema’s history—see how Antonioni’s vast and curiously framed compositions commented on Italy’s consumerist obsessions in the sixties, or how Fassbinder’s flood of in-your-face, porn-lit cheapies highlighted simmering anger and inequalities that undermined the image of a booming, bourgeois West Germany in the seventies. These days, however, it seems harder and harder for filmmakers to nail social malaise via overtly formal tactics (see: the career of Todd Solondz). The best statement on the zeitgeist produced by American cinema of late has been Take Shelter, which evinced a warm organically Spielbergian interest in family, story, and character rather than indulging in cool remove.
The biggest recent disaster in this regard is Steve McQueen’s Shame, a film in which the concerns are so specific, so insular, that the rigorous arm’s-length aesthetic, rather than turning its massive-donged protagonist into a stand-in for endemic human angst, results in tediously icy portraiture. The Comedy’s particular brand of remove suggests another nagging issue: perhaps the filmmakers mounting these critiques fail also due to a lack of full emotional and sociological understanding of the milieus that they’ve trained their impassive camera lenses onto. Distance then, becomes a protective shroud—The Comedy seems to pull back from its characters not to provide a better vantage point, but because it might not truly comprehend what it’s seeing.
The Brooklyn-set film opens with one of its most noxious sequences: the song “Baby,” cooed by teenaged brother duo Donnie and Joe Emerson—whose music was recently rediscovered by a record collector and made into DJ-set and mix mainstays—plays on the soundtrack as the film’s overweight, hirsute man-children, including bizarro comedian Tim Heidecker as protagonist Swanson, engage in a bit of beer-soaked, flabby debauchery, all captured in an opiate slow-mo. A quick image of Heidecker’s paunchy, naked nether regions, his genitals squeezed between his legs to simulate a vagina (has the modern Williamsburg man emasculated himself, the film scratches its chin and wonders?), will haunt me for all my days. The seductiveness on the soundtrack aside, the images are off-putting and more than a little grotesque. Partisans will be quick to note that this discrepancy is the point, which I’ll grant. Like the often surreal non sequitur–based comedy Heidecker practices as one half of the comedy duo Tim and Eric, the sequence is confrontational, but Alverson’s choice of music, a track selected as much for its buzzed-about status within a certain set as its aptness for the scene, limits our readings. We’re not supposed to laugh, or consider deeply. We’re just asked to blandly accept yet another crude Generational Snapshot.
Alverson’s aim seems to be an ethnography of contemporary Williamsburg hipster ennui, which isn’t necessarily a terrible idea, even if it doesn’t exactly get the blood racing. Thus The Comedy proceeds from its opening bacchanal in a loosely episodic fashion, following the exploits of Swanson, who lives on a houseboat in the East River and bikes around a lot, and his bros, including Van Arman (Eric Wareheim, the other half of Tim and Eric), Ben (LCD Soundsystem creator James Murphy), Cargill (Jeffrey Jensen), and Will (Austin band Okkervil River’s Will Sheff). Swanson’s solo adventures usually result in him calculatedly offending others: he pretends to be a gardener only to storm off the job in front of the shrubbery’s perplexed owners; he talks his way into a dishwashing post he doesn’t seem to need at all (he lives off family riches); later, he convinces a cabbie to let him drive briefly, only to terrify the man by speeding dangerously into parts unknown.
The rest of the film finds Swanson engaging in extended verbal jam sessions: with comedian Neil Hamburger he riffs about the relative cleanliness of hobo dicks (they get sucked so often, right?), and with Wareheim and Murphy he takes part in an impromptu, highly irritating rap about tipping in the backseat of a cab. This is all supposed to be either hugely hilarious or highly discomfiting (or both), but nothing pricks the skin; it’s the retarded cousin to Scorsese’s The King of Comedy. On the whole, Heidecker comports himself well (the camera does favors to his half-bearded, doughy face), as does Wareheim—both seem ready to anchor a better movie. Reframing their schtick within the confines of a “serious” film was clearly Alverson’s intent, but the construct he surrounds them with is so flimsy (the addition of Murphy, especially, a terrible actor and overdetermined cultural marker who seems generally frightened every time Tim and Eric wind up into a riff, is a constant reminder of the myriad bad choices at work here) that their easy charisma overwhelms any ideas The Comedy thinks it’s put into play.
But wait—Alverson seems to suggest a method to (or at least motivation for) Swanson’s madness. Early in the film, the hero sits idly at the sickbed of his father, frail and seemingly near death. Unmoved and bored by the spectacle, he proceeds to annoyingly pepper the attending male nurse with a barrage of obnoxious questions. Later, Swanson brings an attractive young coworker (never given a name, she is played by Kate Lyn Sheil) back to his houseboat. As the two drink, and sexual tension mounts, Swanson launches into his usual patter, noting the functionality of the zipper on the girl’s shorts or that he believes it best they remove their shirts since the heat is so oppressive. Suddenly, the girl has an epileptic seizure; Swanson’s reaction shots reveal only mild curiosity at this turn of events, he just watches her and, after a few beats, Alverson cuts to the two boating back to shore. Does the film mean for us to suppose that Swanson’s indifference to everything is a result of the primal trauma of his father’s impending death and his rich-boy lifestyle? Is that even enough of a hook to recoup a movie with so little else of note happening?
Just to drive home the point that Swanson and his circle have become so inured to life by irony, Alverson includes a party scene in which Van Arman inserts pornographic photos into what initially seems like a straightforward showcase of old family slides. The gang doesn’t blink. The Comedy, then, is a “comedy,” but not the type that provides amusement. The clean closing and opening typeface signal literary pretensions aligning the film with the “comedic” in the manner of Dante, and I be unsurprised to find that Alverson has conceived of his rootless, often seafaring protagonist as undertaking some sort of Homer-styled odyssey as well. (Are two children he meets in an elevator meant to suggest Scylla and Charybdis?) The only scene in The Comedy that approaches meaning finds the gang playing whiffleball to the strains of William Basinski’s Disintegration Loops. As the music repeats and degrades into patches of muffled sound, the images are lent a certain bruised grandeur, but as soon as one thinks on the choice for a second, its utter obviousness overwhelms: a piece of music about decay taken from the immediate post 9/11 period and layered over shots of dudes we might assume are irrevocably damaged by 9/11, now unthinkingly living a precarious, slowly disintegrating lifestyle. With films like The Comedy, The Color Wheel, and Ry Russo-Young’s Teorema-for-dummies Nobody Walks—all of which aim high but manage to create little in the way of lasting meaning—held up as exemplars of the “next” in American cinema, it seems we may have left the comparatively benign environs of mumblecore behind for an even bleaker landscape. Call it New American Ineptitude.