Borat, cinema, Eric Wareheim, Film, hipsters, indie comedies, indie dramas, James Murphy, Jeffrey Jensen, LCD Soundsystem, Movies, Neil Hamburger, pretentious, Rick Alverson, Sacha Baron Cohen, satire, scatological conversations, self-satisfied, tedious, The Comedy, Tim Heidecker, unpleasant
Since things have been a little hectic for the past several days, last Friday was the last time (for a few days, at least) that I was able to cram several films into one day. This particular day, however, ended up being more miss than hit but just barely. I watched one extremely irritating film, one fantastic film and one very disappointing film. Since it turned out that I had more to say about The Comedy than I initially figured, I’ll go ahead and split this day into two: we’ll get to You’re Next and Curdled in the next installment.
As I’ve often found to be true, it’s entirely possible to detest the content of a film while still admiring the craft behind said film. This is certainly true of film’s with extremely disturbing content (Salo, most “torture porn” films) but the same can also be said of film’s that display a masterful touch with cinematography and style yet offer nothing whatsoever as far as content goes. These films, in other words, are the cinematic equivalents of Little Debbie snack cakes: bright, vibrant outsides filled with nauseating nothingness inside. Nowhere can I think of a film that better exemplifies this aesthetic than Rick Alverson’s The Comedy.
Before I begin to detail everything that I disliked about this film — and that’s no inconsequential list, might I add — let me take a moment to list the things that actually worked for me. Right off the bat, the film looks pretty great, at least as far as moody indie films go. The acting, when it can manage to stay away from endless litanies of debauched profanities (which it cannot do for any great length of time), isn’t bad. The trump card of having oddball comedians like Tim Heidecker, Eric Wareheim and Neil Hamburger (listed as Gregg Turkington in the credits) perform in the equivalent of a dour indie drama is interesting, at first, but wears its welcome out pretty quickly. Alverson has a tendency to use indie-instrumental music to set moods and, in scenes such the wordless bicycle ride through the city, it really works. I actually found the bicycle riding scene to be very atmospheric: I only wish that the filmmaker’s had followed that particular muse instead of the one that actually informed the picture: South Park.
You see, The Comedy isn’t so much a film, per se, as an extremely misguided attempt to call out that most mystical of modern beasts: the hipster. What, you may ask, is a hipster? Well, it seems to be a bit harder to define than a hippie, goth or metal-head, mostly because those sub-strata of society can (usually) be readily defined by either their attire or their choice of music. Hipsters, on the other hand, seem to be more defined by attitude: a slack, lackadaisical, ultra-sarcastic view of the world that allows for only ironic attachments, whether they be to entertainment, friends or political viewpoints: a hipster will hate Motley Crue but wear a Motley Crue t-shirt because it’s ironic. The hipster (at least as defined by what we see in The Comedy) is a PBR-swilling, smirking, self-satisfied putz, a rather repugnant creature that feels any subject (Hitler, rape, slavery, death) is ripe for hilarious satire. Because, you know, it’s all ironic, dude.
And that, essentially, is my huge problem with The Comedy. Under the guise of taking to task these odious individuals, Alverson has actually given them free rein to run amok for almost two hours. Here’s the exact format of the film, a formula that’s played out time and time again:
— Swanson (Heidecker), a rich, bored “hipster” and his equally bored friends Van Arma, Ben, Cargill and Bobby (played, respectively, by Wareheim, LCD Soundsystem frontman James Murphy, Jeffrey Jensen and Hamburger), hang out together, damn each other with faint praise (“I totally respect your friendship”…”You are so good at being you”), drink PBR, have disgustingly scatological conversations with each other (The low point? Either the bit about hobo cocks being super clean because stock brokers are constantly sucking them or the delightful bit about smearing shit on vaginas…take your pick.) and then go out into the public where they act like boorish assholes and, apparently, attempt to get themselves killed by as many offended people as possible. This is usually followed by a short, quiet scene where Swanson seems to reflect on his actions, only to have the whole cycle begin anew within moments. Rinse, lather, repeat.
Here’s the thing: cinematic history is filled with great films about absolutely loutish individuals. Hell, it’s filled with plenty of great films CREATED by loutish individuals. There’s a fine trick involved, however, with such depictions of obnoxious characters, a trick that outre filmmakers like Todd Solondz know only too well: you may depict any number of endless atrocities, you may say anything, you may go anywhere, as long as the audience understands that you don’t actually agree with these things.
And yes, that is a mighty slippery slope, since it really begins to edge around issues of creative control, intent, art vs pornography, etc. But here’s the other thing: the filmmakers who are the undisputed masters of this domain, people like Todd Solondz, Mel Brooks, Trey Parker/Matt Stone and John Waters, never allow the audience to lose sight of what’s wrong or right. They may depict racist, misogynistic, insane, unpleasant and downright bizarre individuals but there is always the sense that humanity is upheld. The truly evil individuals, in these particular universes, will always be known to us: the filmmakers may not always give them their just comeuppance but we, as an audience, can always see through the act. I don’t mean to say that bad characters in films always need to be punished: I do mean to say, however, that it should be very evident where the actual filmmakers stands on issues like racism, sexism, etc.
The Comedy, unlike something such as Blazing Saddles or Pink Flamingos, is a much more confused affair. For the most part, there is no commentary on these boorish acts, mostly because everyone in the film (with very few exceptions and we’re talking perhaps five, total, if I’m pressed) are equally obnoxious. Swanson takes a job as a dishwasher at a restaurant and engages in verbal sparring with a comely waitress (played by Kate Lyn Sheil). His method of courtship? Graphic descriptions about how he’s a convicted rapist and will rape anything that moves, including her. The waitress, for her part, gives as good as she gets, indicating that she’s pretty okay with this line of discussion. We’re supposed to understand, of course, that Swanson is being super-duper ironic here: he’s saying the worst possible things he can think of, simply to provoke any kind of reaction in his stunted life. His technique, it must be said, is also successful: after some light rape talk at the restaurant, Swanson eventually takes the waitress back to his houseboat for some more “clever” repartee and some hanky-panky.
All fair and good. What, then, to make of the “hilarious” scene where Swanson goes into a predominately black bar and swaggers around, loudly asking, “Where your bitches at” because he “wants to fuck some black ass?” It couldn’t possibly be racist because no one, save the caddish Swanson, would actually do that, right? How about the priceless gag where Swanson pays a Middle Eastern cab driver $500 so he can drive his cab around and yell at innocent women like they were prostitutes for hire? Another fun bit of harassment involves Swanson planting himself in a chair by his dying father’s bedside and regaling the male nurse with delightful anecdotes about “prolapsed anuses” before launching into a clever routine involving the word in phrases such as “Anus and Andy” or “Famous Anus Cookies” (okay, full disclosure: I did laugh at Famous Anus Cookies but I’m pretty sure that was the 12-year-old in me).
And yes, of course, there is plenty of history for material like this. Hell, Sacha Baron Cohen turned these kind of interactions (in the real world, no less) into his entire career and the Jackass guys have been doing it for a while, too. We also have some pretty racist material in Blazing Saddles and South Park, some pretty awful sexual ickiness in Happiness and a horribly worthless schlub in The King of Comedy. The difference, as far as I can see it, has to do with the equal-opportunity scope of the other filmmakers, particularly Mel Brooks and Parker/Stone. Mel Brooks is famous for never meeting anything he wouldn’t make fun of in a film: religion, ethnicity, racism, sexism, social mores, incest, mental illness, nationalism…you name it, Brooks poked at it. You’d have to be pretty brain-dead, however, to mistake whether Brooks’ sympathies lay with Bart or Hedley Lamarr. Every edgy joke, reference and rim shot in the film is funneled towards one, explicit purpose: shining the cold light of truth under the rock and exposing racism as the ridiculous, self-defeating, self-cannibalizing disgrace that it’s always been. Similarly, South Park may seem to unleash quite a bit of scorn on Scientology but compare that to what they’re saying about Christianity, Judaism, Paganism, Islam and the like and it comes across as just another target bottle on the fence. Offensive? Sure. But equal-opportunity offensive rather than specifically targeted.
With The Comedy, however, I was never sure where my sympathies were supposed to lie. I’ll be honest: I’d already mentally checked out a few minutes into the film, as the first scene was a slo-mo fest of slobby, shirtless guys spraying PBR everywhere while dry humping each other. There was such an air of detached bemusement to the scene, almost as if Alverson were saying, “Aren’t these guys just too, too crazy?,” that I could almost smell the self-congratulation coming from the screen.
None of this, by the way, is to insinuate that either Alverson or any of the cast have any intentional purpose to salute this sort of behavior. I do believe, however, that everyone involved lacked the abilities to pull this kind of thing off gracefully, opening the door wide for just such an insinuation. The whole thing, to be honest, smacks of the “enlightened” individual who relishes telling racist and sexist jokes because they “outrage” him so much or the gore-hound who studiously tracks down every frame of questionable content for films that she has no intention of seeing, just to see how bad it really is.
By the time I got to stuff like Swanson arguing for the return of feudalism (because some people just need to serve other people), the relative merits of Hitler (if one could look past all of the murder and stuff) and the scene where the waitress has an epileptic fit (I guess) as Swanson is preparing to have sex with her, only for him to spend the next several minutes watching her convulse while sipping a drink…I had just given up. Any attempt to look for deeper meaning, any idea that Alverson would be pulling the rug from under my feet and doling out bottomless shame to these assholes, was defeated completely by an ending that seems to posit Swanson as a lost, confused soul. Really? Because he kind of came across like a pretentious, racist, privileged douchebag for the entirety of the film. I realized that the extent of Alverson’s commentary on the subject was confined to the title: it’s ironic because the movie isn’t actually a comedy but a drama, dude…get it?
Ultimately, I was left with more questions than answers by The Comedy: What, exactly, is a hipster and does it actually exist in any minds other than other “hipsters”? What the hell was James Murphy doing in this? (to his credit, Murphy often looks pretty ashamed of what’s going on around him but his glee in the church-scooting scene is pretty obvious) Is it possible to have a really good, dark drama populated entirely by comedians? Where is the line between satirizing frat-boy misbehavior and just depicting it wholesale?
Perhaps, in the end, the joke really is on me. The characters in the film are all in their mid-30s, just like me. Perhaps I’m supposed to identify with this in the same way that twenty-somethings identify with films like Ben Stiller’s The Secret of Walter Mitty or Spike Jonze’s Her. If so, the joke is still over my head. I couldn’t imagine doing anything with these people but repeatedly hitting them with a 2×4. When I watch The Comedy, all I see is a bunch of stunted man-babies acting like complete and total jackasses. If Alverson sees something more noteworthy or noble, I sure wish he’d point it out to me.