The Comedy :: Apparently, It’s a Dystopian Fable…

The central character of The Comedy, played by comedian Tim Heidecker, is called Swanson, although – not untypically – you never learn that in the film.

Swanson is a bit of a mess. He has let himself go. In the opening scene, Swanson and his equally unkempt friends are drunk and in various states of undress, spitting and pouring beer over one another’s bloated bodies and into one another’s massive Y-fronts in some kind of anti-erotic slow-motion frat-dance.

It is an odd opening to a distinctly odd film that feels at times like a cross between Hal Hartley and Mike Leigh, with highly stylised characters and a great deal of awkwardness.

Swanson seems to enjoy making people feel uncomfortable, but he doesn’t really appear to know why. He is a man of means but has no idea what to do with his life, so just drifts aimlessly from one unpleasant encounter to the next. I felt very sorry for him, for most of the film. I also empathised with his rather nihilistic sense of humour, which warmed me to him, at first. As the film goes on, however, he becomes less and less humane.

There is a scene in the final third of the film in which he watches someone have an epileptic fit with a chillingly cold, almost sociopathic air of detachment. That was when he lost me. That was when I started to regret getting to know him.

But actually, even then, I wanted there to be some redemption. I wanted him to show me his humanity. I wanted to like him.

The final scene reminded me of the final scene in Ian McEwan’s Solar, when you’re not sure if the main character is having a heart attack or feeling a genuine emotion. Similarly, The Comedy ends with Swanson in the sea at the beach frolicking and gambolling with a little boy of about five years old, and you find yourself thinking, ‘Aww, you see – he’s just a big harmless kid and all that cold, mean, nasty stuff is just a confused mask’, but then you also find yourself holding your breath and just hoping that he doesn’t grab the kid and hold him under the water till he dies, because both scenarios seem equally likely.

I actually liked The Comedy quite a lot, but only because there was just enough humanity in the central character to convince me that somewhere underneath the bullshit meanness, there lurked a decent human being. He loves his friends at least. And he does have a sense of humour. Albeit a pretty fucked-up one.

Cineville - The Comedy

At the end of the screening, there was a Q&A with the director, Rick Alverson, in which he revealed that there were a lot of walk-outs when the film showed in the States. Like Swanson in the film, Alverson revels in making people feel uncomfortable. He wants to see how far he can push people and defy their expectations. The intent of The Comedy, he explained, was to make ‘a dystopian fable about the realisation of the American Dream’. Hmmm. He also – as is clear from the film – has no interest in narrative. ‘That isn’t why I go to the movies,’ he said. He is much more interested in ‘the temporal event of cinema … the lights and sounds and the composition and the event of time passing and our relationship to that time passing – tonally.’

It’s probably true to say that the more he spoke, the less I liked the film.

‘I almost want to make a narrative,’ he said, ‘out of the deception of the narrative.’ He said, ‘In this movie, not a lot happens but a lot potentially could happen and the idea is to keep the audience believing in the potential of there being a narrative satisfaction, which never comes.’

Indeed, in the film, Alverson teases us with the revelation early on that Swanson’s father is dying of cancer, but then he chooses not to develop that potential storyline and instead chooses to focus on Swanson’s unpleasantness and endless navel-gazing. (His navel, along with the rest of his giant gut is actually visible, flapping about on screen for at least a third of the film.)

Rick Alverson seemed like a really nice guy, but also, for my own tastes, a little pretentious and rambling and at times incoherent, such as when he claimed that The Comedy is actually about ‘the veil of irony and the evolution of language’. Is it? Is it really? For me, it’s about a sad, lost and painfully self-centred man who may or may not be a sociopath, totally failing to find any hope or purpose in his privileged and pointless life. Yet still, somehow, I kind of enjoyed it.


Cineville - The Comedy


The Viewing

This was my first trip to the Eye Filmmuseum and it is a remarkable place. Situated on the edge of the north side of Amsterdam and visible from behind the train station, the Eye reminds me of a less ostentatious Sydney Opera House crossed with a giant origami frog.

The Eye Filmmuseum and Cineville Cinema

Inside is a collection of glorious things. There is, for example, a permanent exhibition about the history of film, with working examples of each of the landmark pieces of technology, from the phénakisticope to the smartphone.

There is a shop full of things I so wanted to buy, an incredible restaurant in which I so wanted to eat and all the latest exhibitions and conferences in an ever-changing programme of absolutely fascinating stuff. It's a wonderful space, like the South Bank Centre in London but to my mind at least, better.

I had forgotten until I was sitting in the cinema that the director was going to be there. He was introduced at the beginning by Dutch film journalist Rick de Gier, who also conducted the Q&A at the end. And although I might not have been bowled over by what the director had to say, it was great to be there to hear him say it, and I shall definitely be returning to see more films in the Eye's Lost in America season.

One more thing...

This for me is a perfect microcosm for the film. Nasty men-babies being unnecessarily cruel and totally self-absorbed, but I don't know, for me at least, there's something about them...

About the Author

I am Karl Webster. I wrote these words. If you liked them, you’ll be overjoyed to know that there are plenty more where they came from. So you should definitely sign up to my newsletter if you haven’t already.

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