For a catalog of aggressively stupid, socially deviant male behavior, Rick Alverson’s cheekily titled “The Comedy” is not without a certain subversive intelligence. A dark, determinedly abrasive study of a slovenly Brooklyn hipster who spends his abundant free time harassing cab drivers, disrupting churches and assaulting everyone he meets with discomfiting sexual and racial language, this singular Sundance entry is certain to split reactions every which way; for some, the film’s critical view of its subject may not be enough to compensate for the displeasure of his company. Fans of star-comedian Tim Heidecker notwithstanding, post-fest commercial prospects look slight.
A memorably repulsive prologue depicts a bunch of guys carousing in and out of their underwear, sloshing their chubby, pasty-white bodies with beer. But this is no fraternity hazing ritual: Well into their 30s, these emotionally deadened man-child pranksters are overgrown in every sense, leading lives of such undeserved privilege that they can afford to regard the world with sniggering indifference to social niceties or human struggle. Masters of squirm-inducing comic cruelty, they perform for each other, for the unsuspecting strangers unfortunate enough to cross their path and, of course, for the viewer.
The film spends a plot-free 94 minutes following one of the men, Swanson (Heidecker), as he wanders around Williamsburg and other parts of New York, stirring up all manner of minor chaos. Addressing a nurse assigned to take care of his wealthy, bedridden father, Swanson delivers a badgering monologue about lower bodily functions. Getting into a political discussion with a girl (Alexia Rasmussen) at a party, he extols the virtues of feudalism and compliments Hitler. Somehow she winds up in bed with him on his houseboat, to which he brings the occasional date, ferrying her across the bay in his dinghy.
Some of Swanson’s stunts — such as when he poses as a gardener and asks a well-to-do couple if his Mexican buddies can swim in their pool — carry unsettling racial overtones, though they project not outright prejudice so much as an impish child’s unformed view of the world outside his bubble. Elsewhere, he and his friends get together for the equivalent of comedy writers’ roundtable sessions, holding extended mock conversations on inane and vulgar topics, and occasionally asserting their love for one another in voices tinged with sarcasm.
Given his surreally unhinged antics with funnyman partner Eric Wareheim (cast as one of Swanson’s bearded buddies) on their Comedy Central series or their concurrent Sundance premiere, “Tim and Eric’s Billion Dollar Movie,” Heidecker seems almost subdued here. Onscreen nearly every minute and often wearing thick-rimmed blue sunglasses, the thesp gives a compulsively fascinating performance replete with weird facial tics, vocal inflections and gestures. There are moments throughout, including the ambiguous final scene, that suggest Swanson is beginning to experience a flicker of empathy. But any confirmation of this is firmly withheld by the script (by Alverson, Robert Donne and Colm O’Leary), as are any telling details about Swanson’s background apart from his obviously wealthy family.
A level of monotony does creep in, and unreceptive viewers may well argue that to devote a feature-length movie to these sorry specimens of humanity, even in a harshly evaluative light, is to give them far too much credit. In scrutinizing so specific and pernicious a subsect of American culture, Alverson can hardly be said to be getting at universal truths, although some may well recognize, with a wince, the characters’ impulse to respond to the distant suffering of others with an insensitive one-liner. Pointedly, the focus is so entirely on the protagonist that one gets only the vaguest sense of his victims’ humiliation; scene by scene, the film sets up its joke and leaves it to us to recoil from the punchline — even, or perhaps especially, when it’s genuinely funny.
Alverson’s unfussy filmmaking breathes quiet assurance, as Mark Schwartzbard’s HD lensing and a deftly underplayed synth score (by Alverson and Champ Bennett) invite the viewer into a contemplative state. Mumblecore regular Kate Lyn Sheil has a brief, effective role as a waitress in whom Swanson might just have found his match, at one point taking their puerile performance art to an inexplicable extreme.