Have you ever wondered—and I mean really sat and pondered and extrapolated the consequences—about what your life would be like if you had an effectively limitless amount of money?
While watching The Comedy, I thought about this, and found myself thinking of sandbox-style video games in which you can use cheat codes, like Skyrim or Grand Theft Auto. Whenever I cheat at those games, the normally immersive and addictive experience suddenly becomes much emptier, and I find myself fucking around with NPCs in much the same way The Comedy's protagonist fucks around with everyone he encounters. He's totally the kind of guy who would pick a house's front door lock, wander into the dining room, ignore the occupants' demands that he leave, and shout "FUS-ROH!" at the dining table just to watch all their shit go flying everywhere.
The imaginary perspective I impose upon my player character in these games is so altered by the unnatural power granted by cheat codes that suddenly I no longer care about the Stormcloak rebellion or Ballas encroaching on my 'hood. In fact, it becomes hard to care about anything other than testing the limits of the character's surroundings; fortunately for me, the game can be restarted or turned off.
No such luck for The Comedy's rich protagonist (named Swanson, though only in the credits), whom we meet while he's cruelly mocking the male nurse who cares for his dying father—who's right there in the room. Swanson meanders through life in just the same way as a God Mode Dovahkiin, messing with people he encounters to cringe-inducing degrees—except when his heart's just not in it, and he wanders off to find some new way to kill time. He has nothing to do, nothing to aspire to, and nothing to lose, just like a game avatar who has cheated his way past the final boss and into the best armor. You half expect him to sink his own boat just to have something interesting to look at.
The Comedy has proved divisive, and with good reason. It's a marketer's worst nightmare: it's got that title, but is actually a bleak indie drama with occasional moments of black comedy, so audience expectations are immediately skewed—and its star is Tim Heidecker, around whom audiences will build even further inaccurate expectations. I'm not the only one who perceives this: I saw The Comedy at a screening attended by its director, Rick Alverson, who prefaced the film with warnings about inaccurate expectations. (He also had interesting anecdotes, in the Q&A that followed, about rows of viewers walking out during screenings at Sundance and the like.)
Like many indies, The Comedy has themes and symbolism, if not many other typical film attributes. Childhood is one such theme, and I'd be certain the final scene (involving a child) was intended to be significant if this were a more mainstream, less deliberately ambiguous film. For all I know, the real main theme was supposed to be clinical depression. Yet some scenes are comparatively straightforward, such as the sort of inevitable (but still entertaining) church scene.
Much of Swanson's most memorably awful behavior—the nurse scene, the bar scene, the taxi scene, the seizure scene—coincides with his substance abuse, mainly hard liquor. This may be part of the reason that we feel some inkling of affection for this otherwise quite loathsome man: he wants to go too far, but he can't will himself to do it without help. However, most of that affection (perhaps "pity" would be more accurate) is probably attributable to a consistently impressive performance by Heidecker. We already knew (from Awesome Show) that he can do "asshole" and "despair" convincingly, but here he displays subtlety that kept me watching and wondering.
It's too bad the film has no plot. Alverson said at the Q&A that the original script was only twenty pages long, and almost all of the characters' interactions were unscripted.
Now, I don't demand a rigid, prototypical plot structure in films I want to enjoy. For example, while watching The Comedy I thought of the likewise divisive early Spielberg drama Empire of the Sun. The similarities aren't especially major—both protagonists are children of privilege? there's bad stuff happening to them?—but structurally, Empire of the Sun has always been striking to me: the biking scenes in the emptied city, the long stretch in the prison camp, the almost hallucinogenic foot journey thereafter. Many biographies, necessarily, have unusual structures like this.
I guess this means I might have tolerated The Comedy's plotlessness more than I did if it was "based on a true story" or "inspired by true events" or even a mockumentary (but then, jeez, talk about too much ironic detachment). During the Q&A, I didn't ask any questions and probably wouldn't have if I'd had one—the people I dragged to the movie looked about ready to punch me—but if I had, it probably would have been "To what extent is this film autobiographical?" It would've gotten a laugh, at least.
But I really can't remember the last movie I saw with so little plot. The most compelling parts of The Comedy (I won't say "enjoyable") are the scenes where Swanson pushes the envelope so far that you can't look away for fear his hand will get stuck in the proverbial mailbox. It may be a spoiler to say this, but at no point does the viewer get any kind of catharsis or payoff from any of these wild situations (as we would in even the bleakest Awesome Show sketches). Even when things happen in this movie, which is infrequent, they carry no consequences.
Thus, I do not exaggerate when I use the word "plotless." Even the presence of the most basic necessity of a narrative—character change—is debatable here. Now, perhaps it truly is, to paraphrase Alverson from the Q&A, a form of unnatural artifice for movies to have things like endings and points of view. And I certainly detest "serious" movies that tell me how to react as much as anyone else. But this protagonist is so far gone, and his world so baffling, that this directorial approach cannot help but be frustrating. Maybe that was the intent.
I mentioned the theme of childhood earlier. These characters—Swanson and his friends—are depicted as middle-aged children, and Swanson in particular seems to be very far indeed from growing up. But the film never really engages these topics. We only see Swanson's friends in the context of hanging out with Swanson, and certainly there are plenty of nominally grown-up men out there who aren't Williamsburg hipsters but who transform into children when they're with friends. Likewise, the only family we see Swanson interact with is his sister-in-law, who has almost no dialogue and whose scenes are among the more opaque. Are these omissions merely art-cinema affectation, or is Swanson really this alone, disaffected, and paralyzed by hipster irony…and if the latter, can any human being realistically be expected to live like this? (If he was my brother, I'd buy him a dog or something. Or maybe sign him up for a tour in Afghanistan.)
Resolution and clarity are not to be expected from The Comedy, and the occasional gripping, painful, but funny scenes don't completely counterbalance the long stretches of nothing. In other words, the degree to which you will enjoy The Comedy depends on two key factors: your tolerance for awkward, brutal "humor" (which for me is possibly infinite) and your tolerance for the intensely indie (in my case, definitely finite). One thing is certain: it's a movie that you keep thinking about afterward, thought you may not wish to.
Star Score: 2.5 out of 5