“Williamsburg represent,” Tim Heidecker halfheartedly declares to a bar full of African-American patrons in The Comedy. “Represent what?” one of them replies. And there, in a nutshell, lies the thesis of Rick Alverson’s prickly examination/example of disaffected Brooklyn hipsterdom, and the towering fortress of irony and cock jokes that wall up access to the soul—if one even exists anymore. Like an arted-up twist on provocative anti-comedies like Lars von Trier’s The Idiots or Tom Green’s Freddie Got Fingered, The Comedy is deliberately off-putting, offering a hero who wallows in booze and entitlement, and gets thin pleasure from needling people by defending Hitler (“if you take murder out of the equation…”) or slipping into the voice of a Southern plantation owner. There’s genuine pain at the core of Heidecker’s character—or at least a numbness where the pain used to reside—but the film is keen on obscuring it.
An early scene sets the tone: Sitting morosely by a hospital bed, facing the certainty of his father’s death and the uncertainty of where his life will go afterward, Heidecker snacks on cookies and scotch, and peppers a male nurse with questions. Has he ever had to deal with a prolapsed anus, when the muscle gives out from abuse and hangs down in a tissue sac? Was he taught about that along with the women in nurse school? The formalities of Heidecker’s father’s considerable estate come up throughout The Comedy—and more subtly, the emotional fallout does too—but elsewhere, Heidecker talks nonsense with his buddies (including his Tim & Eric partner Eric Wareheim, Gregg Turkington a.k.a. Neil Hamburger, and LCD Soundsystem’s James Murphy) and provokes people for sport. Sometimes he’s actively trying to hurt somebody, other times he’s just pushing the limits, like an overgrown child.
The Comedy harshly assesses a particular breed of drifting, decadent, trust-funded Brooklyn layabout, but not from a safe distance—it implicates itself, and feels more like an act of raw self-loathing than cool portraiture. Heidecker’s performance is absolutely pitiless, inviting no sympathy, yet suggesting some faint embers of humanity under the surface, some private agony that cannot be salved by his relationship to other human beings. It’s a nasty piece of work, to be sure—John Waters once considered audience members vomiting during his movies to be like a standing ovation, and that seems to apply here—but it’s melancholy as well as abrasive, with a moody tone that buffs out some of the in-your-face obnoxiousness and cruelty. Its audience may be self-selective in the extreme, but few films have better articulated the limits of irony as a force field against the world.