Sunday, May 5, 2013

The (Awkward) Comedy

Movie Review: The Comedy

Director: Rick Alverson

Reviewed: 6 May 2013

jamesintexas rating--***1/2

My brother Danny has always urged me into the comedy of Tim & Eric, and I started listening to "On Cinema," a mock-film podcast where the hosts review films in the most cursory of ways, calling nearly every film an "instant classic" and a "great popcorn movie" as they urge us to find them at local video stores or garage sales. I have admired the silliness in their work, although I never immersed myself in their world until seeing the new film "The Comedy." I was profoundly disturbed and impressed with this film and its lead performance. 

Swanson (Tim Heidecker) parades drunk and naked across the opening scenes, a giant man child who spews beer on his friends, engages in juvenile pranks, and appears to be a real-life version of Billy Madison. Loosely separated by encounters with women as well as shots of Swanson captaining his boat in the harbor of New York City, "The Comedy" follows him through his life as he drinks, enjoys time with his close friends, vaguely pursues a job, and in general mocks the world around him through awkward scenarios. However, a genuine melancholy haunts the edges of this character with hints of his failed relationship with his father, a brother requiring medical attention, as well as a restlessness of spirit despite an extremely comfortable lifestyle. 

Be warned. There are some horrifically offensive scenes and conversations in "The Comedy." A prank on a taxi cab driver quickly devolves into dire cruelty. An ugly monologue devolves into crude racism, all delivered in a mock-Southern accent to another family member during a serious moment. A scene in a church mocks its solemnity with movement, chanting, and invocation of demons. A slide show juxtaposes childhood family photos with pornography. A conversation starts, "Hitler never gets credit for..."  You get the picture.

Alverson frames Swanson often with a drink in hand, slouched or hunched over, usually with his belly distended or poking out from underneath his shirt. There are some marvelous shots of the New York City skyline from a tennis court and from the water. At times I was frustrated by its apparent lack of narrative, but Alverson is working deeply here. The structure of the film involves periodic returns to Swanson's community of male friends who live in similar states of arrested development as well as moments of silent reverie as he captains his ship through the harbor. These reinforce the idea that Swanson is adrift and trying to navigate the waters of his own life.

The film's final shots provoke and prod in an emotionally affecting way. Swanson's childishness as journey never has a typical arc, but the stakes are always present. This man drinks and eats cookies and rots from within. Heidecker's committed, still performance captures his self-loathing as well his desire for human connection. Swanson makes fun of others quite a bit in this film, but there is little laughter from him, beyond when he is sitting in the cocoon of friends. Two key moments involve Heidecker shifting his body and voice to suggest that the persona of Swanson is a construction, a facade crafted to shield himself from the pain of his dying father and his sick brother. 

"The Comedy" is a film that surprised me and will linger on in my memory. And, I just have to say it. The scene with the three men in the church chanting and scooting different directions in parallel pews was brilliantly funny. Heidecker chants, "You are in the demon's house" in a low voice, and the shot of them moving horizontally with such fierce determination had me laughing hysterically. I am not proud of it, but I laughed deeply.

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