Manic Depressive, by David Bax
There’s an irony to the name of Rick Alverson’s The Comedy. I don’t mean that in the sense that it’s not a funny movie. It’s actually incredibly funny. I mean that it’s a title that makes you aware, in a postmodern sense, that what you’re watching is a movie. Yet while the lead character is in a constant mode of performance, we are ultimately invited to ask ourselves who he really is and if the film has given us enough clues to decide. The Comedy is at once both tongue-in-cheek and fully sincere.
Tim Heidecker (of Adult Swim’s Tim and Eric Awesome Show, Great Job!) plays Swanson, a 35 year old child of wealth who lives on his boat off the shores of Brooklyn. The film follows an indeterminate period of time in which Swanson’s father is dying. Swanson also hangs out with his friends a lot. Not much else happens.
Swanson is, as mentioned, quite rich. While Alverson does not overlook the ways in which that informs his life and his relationship to the working poor (especially minorities), his wealth is not the main focus. It often seems more a functional choice, the only way that Alverson could find to sustain a character as detached as Swanson is, his floating residence illustrating his remove from the world in which he supposedly lives.
It’s that very detachment that seems to be the point here. Movie geeks, particularly those who grew up in the 1980’s, may find another interpretation of the film’s title. Perhaps Swanson, with his constant, comedic inauthenticity, is the logical real-world version of the cool, sarcastic character played by the likes of Bill Murray. Swanson and his friends are always joking. There’s nary a genuine moment among them. Most of the time, they’re not even being themselves but instead embodying a character meant to poke fun at any sort of earnestness. An early scene in which each of the group of men straightforwardly details why they are enjoying their day and how much they cherish their friends is hilariously devoid of any recognizable emotion.
In our reality, where this film takes place, such behavior is immediately funny but truly sad when subjected to any length of consideration. In the movies, though, this type of person is the cool guy. The Comedy asks us to consider why we consider appealing behavior that is patently socially unhealthy. As kids (and indeed now), we likely laughed at the idea, peddled unconvincingly to us by corny authority figures, that real coolness lied in responsibility, safety and compassion. Instead, we romanticize behavior that is unpleasant, uninterested and destructive.
Mark Schwartzbard’s cinematography is key to the experience of the film. He presents us with a beautiful New York City of warm weather and soft, flattering light but the images are also as unadorned as Swanson’s inner life. There are no flourishes of light or lens that make things go down easier.
This spare approach allows Heidecker’s magnetic performance to command every frame. As false as Swanson stubbornly remains, there is not a single moment in which the actor tips his hand or reveals that he is acting. It is perhaps the most present and assured performance of the year so far. Throughout the film, Swanson repeatedly pretends to be something or someone else. At times, he is clearly just having a laugh. At other times, when he dons the persona of someone who cares about strangers or possesses a work ethic, his motivations are intriguingly nebulous. Is he yearning for a life of passion and meaning or is this just another, deeper level of jest?
No matter what Swanson does or what he may be thinking while he does it, he is almost never less than humorous. Indications that he recognizes his own shallowness and wishes to escape it are present but they are gone so quickly, you may question whether they ever happened. By walking this fine line, Alverson has achieved a rare feat. The Comedy is just as hilarious as it is depressing.