Excess Hollywood: “The Comedy” springs the irony trap

The Comedy is an aggressively bleak, covertly hilarious showcase for ironic detachment taken to near-sociopathic extremes.

Swanson (Tim Heidecker), a slovenly Williamsburg hipster, spends his days in a fugue of entitled indifference, waiting to claim the balance of his inheritance from his ailing millionaire father. The movie, which follows Heidecker’s character and his merry band of trust-funded pranksters as they amuse themselves with crude and increasingly humiliating escapades, is an exercise in relatively aimless misanthropy that nevertheless contains moments of bruising insight on a culture numbed by the twin opiates of irony and soulless self-indulgence.

We watch as Swanson lurches from his houseboat to the streets of Williamsburg, clad in alarmingly short pants and fashionable sunglasses, inserting himself into other people’s lives and generally reveling in his own awkward audacity, especially when the situations turn confrontational. This is a man who delights in bringing out the worst in people, especially those he views as his social inferiors. For example, he walks into an inner-city bar and, just to see the bartender’s reaction, demands that they hire him on the basis that he’ll attract more affluent white customers. During a pseudo-philosophical conversation with a girl at a party, he praises Hitler’s skills as a public speaker and later introduces himself to another girl by attempting to convince her that he’s a convicted rapist.

So, why spend 90 minutes trapped with such a pathetic, hateful character? Mostly because Heidecker, one half of Tim and Eric, the transgressive comedy duo behind cult TV hits “Tim and Eric Awesome Show, Great Job!” and “Tom Goes to the Mayor,” makes Swanson such a compulsively watchable pile of human wreckage. His deadpan delivery and knack for physical slapstick, honed to an absurdist point after years of touring with the “Awesome Show” cast, exaggerate Swanson’s repulsive behavior without ever taking the edge off.

Eric Wareheim, Heidecker’s regular collaborator, also appears as the hairiest member of Swanson’s posse of man-children. Like the rest of “The Comedy,” their scenes together were largely improvised and carry the same inspired grotesquerie they brought to their “Billion Dollar Movie” earlier this year. Standout sequences include a church invasion, a taxicab sing-along session and a pornographic vacation slideshow. Yet these moments of relative levity are offset by some genuinely disturbing material, especially a much-discussed scene where a character has a seizure while Swanson looks on with baleful disinterest.

Critical reaction to “The Comedy” has been decidedly mixed so far, with many saying it embodies the very excesses it seeks to condemn. The film allegedly set a record for walkouts at this year’s Sundance Film Festival by audiences who were either unfamiliar with Heidecker and Wareheim’s previous work or taken in by the on-the-nose title.

Yet I’ll defend director Rick Alverson’s movie as a daring example of black comedy, where laughter is mined from pain and, in some cases, a degree of self-recognition.  Tim and Eric, along with their mentor Bob Odenkirk and fellow comedians like Louis C.K., are often accused of finishing what Andy Kaufman supposedly started: the death of traditional comedy at the hands of subversive, discomfort-laden “anti-humor.” Here, they acknowledge their role in changing the art form and warn against the nihilistic isolation of extreme hipsterdom by actively engaging in it.

Or something like that. Frankly, humor is such a subjective pursuit that it’s pointless to risk over-analyzing it. “The Comedy” is a deeply unsettling character study of a man seemingly beyond the help of a narrative contrivance like redemption, but I’ll admit it made me laugh hard and often. Tim and Eric fans, I hope you know what you’re in for.

  • Updated Dec. 12, 2012 at 9:59 am
  • Edited by Christy Khamphilay