Throw your three-act structure out the window, deep six traditional character development, and cast your coherent narrative to the wind because director Rick Alverson's The Comedy may be one of the most challenging, unconventional films of the year. But just because Alverson and company choose not to tell their story in a straightforward manner, don’t think they’ve got nothing to say. For those possessing the patience and fortitude to endure a film punctuated by extended moments of awkward silence, impenetrable characters, and the occasional flash of absurdist humor, The Comedy offers an acutely perceptive meditation on privileged, post-ironic culture. For any poor soul who wanders into The Comedy expecting something along the lines of Tim and Eric Awesome Show, Great Job!, however, initial blindsiding may cloud the ability to connect with the film on the level that the writers and director intended.
Swanson (Tim Heidecker) has been spoiled since childhood. Safely nestled in a protective bubble of privilege since he was young, he passes the days by being impulsively irreverent with his three best friends (Eric Wareheim, James Murphy, and Gregg Turkington, aka Neil Hamburger). Meanwhile, beneath the surface, an acute sense of malaise begins to set in, causing Swanson's behavior to grow increasingly extreme and erratic. As the prospect of redemption looms just out of reach, the threat of reckoning grows increasingly probable.
Communication is such a crucial factor in how we interact with our friends and loved ones, yet few films explore it in ways that are genuinely effective. To be fair, it isn’t the most sexy or exciting of concepts around which to fashion a film, yet under the guidance of Alverson and co-writers Colm O'Leary and Robert Donne, it takes on quite a profound meaning as the aloof Swanson seems to do everything in his power to side-step sincerity. Even when he's toasting his closest friends, his endearing comments are undercut with a snide tone that makes those compliments hard to take seriously. And while it’s impossible to claim that there’s no value in the way that Swanson and his friends communicate (after all, how can we really know since we don’t share their unique bond and background), the fact that Swanson continually resorts to gross-out humor while discussing serious life or death issues indicates a stubborn, almost willful insistence on remaining emotionally stunted. Add to this Alverson’s penchant for vagueness in terms of both setting and relationships, and our attention remains almost exclusively focused on Swanson as he drifts dispassionately through the days and nights essentially isolating himself from everyone he comes into contact with. Even once Swanson actually manages to connect with a pretty waitress who isn’t put off by his polarizing sense of humor, his detached non-reaction when an emergency arises is downright chilling.
As with many of the people we know in real life, however, it’s difficult to speak in absolutes while discussing Swanson, and the character’s rare flashes of tenderness are handled quite well by Heidecker in his first "dramatic" role. We sense that Swanson is searching for something, and even though we can never be entirely certain what it is, our curiosity compels us to join him in his search. Though it’s a journey not everyone will be willing to take, those of us who are fascinated by the ever-evolving methods we use to communicate with one another will no-doubt appreciate the ambitious nature of The Comedy, and perhaps even pause for a bit of reflection instead of instantly resorting to frustration or outrage when, much like the protagonist, the filmmakers resort to the abstract in their attempt to reflect on changing times and attitudes.