The Comedy, directed by Rick Alverson and starring Tim Heidecker with Eric Wareheim in a supporting role, is the blackest comedy about white privilege since at least David Fincher’s Fight Club, that fin-de-siècle paean to libertarian survivalism and Brad Pitt’s abs. In Alverson’s film, the politics are less explicit and the guts are rather paunchier, the latter due in no small part to the steady amount of Pabst Blue Ribbon consumed, for indeed this story takes place in a milieu that must be described as—hang on tight and spit on me—hipster. The well-nigh anthropological attention to detail in presenting the moneyed layabouts of Brooklyn leads to many uncomfortable moments that reportedly caused walkouts at Sundance—a fact that just might be a selling point for more cynical cinephiles (and who else is going to see this film, really?).
The dark, disquieting tone of the proceedings could come as a surprise to those who know Heidecker and Wareheim primarily as comedy performers and as the creators of the Adult Swim shows Tom Goes to the Mayor and Tim and Eric Awesome Show, Great Job! On the other hand, it shouldn’t surprise people who know their work well. Tim and Eric’s relationship to what generally passes as television comedy these days—say, Tim Allen’s new show Last Man Standing—is marginal at best. Indeed, Tim and Eric have carved out a niche for themselves as this generation’s premiere example of TV anti-comedy: the genealogy of Dadaist comedy performance that runs from Ernie Kovacs and Steve Allen, through Andy Kaufman and the early days of Late Night with David Letterman, and which reached a kind of prime-time high point with Chris Elliot’s absurdist sitcom Get a Life on Fox in the early ’90s. Their first big screen effort, Tim and Eric’s Billion Dollar Movie, was more in the vein of their television work: constant breaking of the fourth wall, extreme avant-pop nonsense, and unexpected celebrity cameos (these guys seemingly know every hip actor in Hollywood). The new film, however, is an experiment in stylistic alchemy.
The gambit here is to see what would happen when Tim and Eric’s meta-ironic mugging for the camera is completely expectorated, leaving only a depthlessly nihilistic core. So what results is a mash-up of Tim and Eric’s sensibilities with those of mumblecore—the movement of micro-budget indies that gave us the likes of Greta Gerwig, Joe Swanberg, and the Duplass brothers, for better or worse. Like many of the mumblecore films, The Comedy centers on the ennui of a protagonist adrift in the contemporary urban landscape, trying to find his way through the soul-crushing banality of post-industrial service economies. Heidecker plays Swanson, who stands to inherit a fortune from his dying father, seen early on in his deathbed while Heidecker looks on, drinking whiskey, munching on Oreos, and berating the attending male nurse.
This set-up is only the flimsiest pretense on which to hang a series of vignettes of Heidecker’s adventures through the city with his group of development-arrested bros. The opening title sequence sets the homosocial scene, with Heidecker and his merry band dancing and spilling beer down each other’s ass cracks in slow motion, all set to the narcotized bedroom soul of Donnie and Joe Emerson’s “Baby” from their recently rediscovered—and music-blog-hyped—1979 album Dreamin’ Wild. (The song is also featured in this year’s Andy Samberg/Rashida Jones vehicle Celeste and Jesse Forever, which plays like the NBC Thursday Night Comedy Block version of the same hipsterish milieu presented in The Comedy.) We follow Heidecker as he aimlessly drifts from one event to the next: from discussing the hypothetical cleanliness of homeless men’s genitalia with his friend played by Gregg Turkinson (better known as his alter ego, the nightclub “comedian” Neil Hamburger), to picking up young women at parties with bon mots about Hitler’s indigestion. The transgressive ante is upped in what is simultaneously one of the funniest and most disturbing scenes (a common conjunction in this film), an extended riff in which Heidecker appropriates the accent and cadence of a plantation owner—one might be reminded of James Mason’s character from the “slavesploitation” classic Mandingo—while making brutally offensive comments to his sister-in-law who obviously despises him, an affect that is sure to be shared by many in the audience.
Charlize Theron’s turn in last year’s Diablo Cody-penned Young Adult was praised in some quarters as a brave attempt at creating a central protagonist that was downright unlikable. That was nothing compared to the unmitigated a-hole that Heidecker plays here. No punches are pulled in depicting the loathsome behavior of these characters, usually at the expense of all those not upper-class, white, and male. The central scene may be the one in which Heidecker enters a bar in a largely African-American neighborhood and strikes up a conversation with several of the patrons. “I’m representin’ Williamsburg, bro,” he tells them, before adding, “I respect where you come from so you have to respect where I come from.” Putting such egregious displays of arrogant privilege on display, and making it so site-specific, might hit close too home for some of the self-selected audiences likely to see a film like The Comedy in the first place.
Some critics, including the Times’s A.O. Scott, have suggested that the film lacks “critical distance,” presumably looking for the kind of moralistic commentary on the behavior of the characters that one finds in such paradigmatic “Sundance films” as Little Miss Sunshine (on Scott’s 10 best list for 2006). He is exactly right. In The Comedy, the only way out is the way through. It has the rare courage of its misanthropic convictions.
In recent years, the media scholar Jeffrey Sconce has diagnosed a wholesale wave of regression in Western democracies, which is evident in the popular culture produced within them. Perhaps nowhere is this regression more apparent than with the plight of the white American male. From the man-child protagonists in much of the work from the Judd Apatow stable (The 40 Year Old Virgin; Knocked Up; I Love You, Man), to Danny McBride’s embodiment of Southern-fried id on HBO’s Eastbound and Down, to the last stand for entitled masculinity staged by the aforementioned Tim Allen,one of the dominant tropes of American media narratives over the past couple decades or so has been the refusal of the white American male to face the responsibilities of adulthood in a changing world. The Comedy is the ne plus ultra of the trend; it shows that the logical conclusion of this regression is a retreat into pure solipsism. It is, in other words, an ideal film for these times.