Sundance Review: The Cynical Hope of “The Comedy”

The Comedy is a fiction film about a self-absorbed, filthy-rich, entitled, obnoxious, lazy hipster who goes around insulting his friends and condescending to strangers—and I genuinely, deeply cared about him. Much like Five Easy Pieces or Mike Leigh’s Naked, director Rick Alverson and lead actor Tim Heidecker have masterfully created a captivating character study about an unlikable character. (Fans of Tim and Eric should delight in seeing a new level of skillful acting from the duo.)

It would be easy to dismiss The Comedy as a kind of snobbish, button-pushing masturbation, a kind of intellectualized, dramatized Jackass, with Heidecker and friends cracking wise at everything life has to offer just for the sake of over-the-line insider laughs. And to be honest, the film does do that type of humor exceptionally well. It’s funny as hell.

But watching Swanson (Heidecker) and friends romp indulgently—beer wrestling and drunkenly playing wiffleball, scathingly critiquing each other with straight faces and stoner eyes—it would all be so much mindless naval gazing if not for the clear sense of melancholy which imbues all their actions. One has to wonder if they are having fun while they’re having fun.

For the most part, yes, they probably are. But there is also these ongoing subtle moments of hesitation, introspection, and doubt. So Heidecker’s character is not only wildly, offensively entertaining, he has a tremendous amount of nuance and depth and pathos to the character. One has to acknowledge that Heidecker’s hipster is on some type of classic Quixotic quest, making a fool (and an asshole) of himself while constantly misinterpreting how to relate to other people.

He is attempting to find connection, attempting to make friends, attempting to offer his respect, but it always comes off wrong. He dangerously tries to get down with some possibly thuggish black guys in a ghetto bar. He attempts to bond with an immigrant cab driver by buying his way into driving the cab. Joining his father’s Latino gardening staff, he tricks the elitist estate managers, seemingly standing up for the workers, but then he walks off, his point being proven to no one.

Fucking around in a church, he seems to contemplate just for a moment whether expressing respect might provide him some comfort, but the feeling comes up empty for him. Or most tellingly, while his sister-in-law tries to discuss serious legal and medical issues involving an unseen and deeply unwell brother, Heidecker desperately tries to make her laugh with a cringe-worthy Southern racist diatribe. His anguish is palpable when he gets barely a smile.

All these hilariously inappropriate failings become a search for the essence of humanity, finding connection despite differences, and his search would be the same no matter his race, class or cultural background. He’s a depressed, irreverent asshole, no doubt. He’s not looking to “better himself”—the film is smarter, edgier and more true than that platitude. He doesn’t know what he’s looking to do. But in this biting nihilist comedy, he’s burning through life fast and raw, aching with the painful hope of the perpetually cynical.

PS: As a die-hard Mets fan, I loved cast member Jeffrey Jensen’s response to a question about the meaning of the film: he went on a spontaneous Andy Kauffman-esque celebratory history of the baseball team, going on and on until the microphone was taken from him. This is why the Mets are loveable, even when they are destined for last place.