If all of cinema was one great big party, with the Baz Luhrmann canon wantonly topping off beverages and Noah Baumbach’s filmography tossing off tipsy bon mots like fistfuls of breadcrumbs, the films of Rick Alverson would be that one guy hugging the wall. Everyone at the soirée finds this guy supremely off-putting, and all past attempts to extend the kindness of interpersonal interaction to him have been met with either outright hostility or sarcasm that sure sounds like mockery. Nobody’s really sure of who he showed up with, or who he came here to meet. Most everybody writes him off as an asshole entirely too pleased with his own cleverness, but his extremely small circle of friends swear to God that he’s really a genius.
This theoretical guy might be Alverson himself, but the description definitely fits the profoundly difficult-to-like protagonists of his last two films, 2012’s The Comedy and the newly released Entertainment. Both Alverson’s films and the guarded, fragile men who lead them actively drive away their intended audience through transgressive, ironic performances. Even as these films affect an outward appearance of deliberate alienation—dickishness for the sheer thrill of life as a dick—the true intention lies buried under several layers of scare quotes. Alverson’s films couldn’t be further from mere trolling; the confrontational exterior masks an undercurrent of profound hurt, and the fear of further pain. The aggressive put-ons function like litmus tests, separating those who get it (and, by proxy, connect to the people making the jokes) from those who don’t. Bust through the outermost layer of so-called “anti-humor,” and Alverson’s leading men are just in search of a kindred spirit.
But to properly understand Alverson’s seemingly antithetical methods, curious parties must first realize the rare intensity of ire that his films arouse in their opponents. Both Entertainment and The Comedy have drawn polarizing reactions, inciting mass festival walkouts from unamused critics while others prick up their ears at the dogwhistle of his provocative brand of humor. But those who disengage from the films do so with an uncommonly personal sense of outrage, as if they’ve been wronged rather than subjected to a film they didn’t much care for. Back during his days with The Boston Globe, Pulitzer winner Wesley Morris wrote of The Comedy, “…none of this is necessarily funny. That’s the extent of the irony here.” The New York Times’ resident luminary A.O. Scott railed even harder: “If you can discern any critical distance or interesting perspective here, or even a good reason to spend 90 minutes in such company, I’m afraid the joke is on you.” This very website’s review skewed positive, but the article’s subhead led with a caveat from A.V. Club alum Scott Tobias: “99.5 percent of the moviegoing public will be put off by this bleak dissection of hipster entitlement. (Psst, other .5 percent: It’s really good.)”
Alverson lives for that .5 percent, and his characters do, too. Swanson, the Tim Heidecker-played Williamsburg parasite at the center of The Comedy, and Gregg Turkington’s stand-up comic in Entertainment have exactly zero concern with driving away their audiences. Turkington’s hideous impression of an open-mic routine in Entertainment is a sonata of free-floating discomfort. With his heinous comb-over plastered down to his head with water replicating the look of flop sweat, he stumbles onto the poorly attended stages of the American Southwest with an armful of glasses of water. He holds them awkwardly, like Adele struggling with a year’s worth of Grammys, and from there it’s hard to pick whether his jokes or delivery are more disastrous. After between 10 and 14 seconds of stammering and false starts, he delivers zingers such as “Why does E.T. love Reese’s Pieces? Because they have the same flavor as cum on his home planet!” or “What’s the worst part of getting gang-raped by Crosby, Stills, and Nash? No Young!”
Swanson’s performance is a little less literal, but twice as knowingly offensive. All the world’s a stage to Swanson, and all the people merely enemies he hasn’t made yet. He’s a born button-pusher, egging on everyone unfortunate enough to cross his path with casually impenetrable sarcasm about Hitler apologia, furniture upholstered with the skin of slave penises, and anal prolapses. (He does a male nurse the service of explaining: “A prolapsed anus is when the anus, which is a muscle, gives out after years of abuse. It comes out of the rear and hangs like a slack bag, or like a purse you might have.”) In the full duration of the film, Swanson speaks perhaps two sentences not swaddled in a responsibly sourced home-knit scarf of hipster irony. Show me a man who threatens his cabbie with no tip unless he gets the hip-hop bumping over the radio and I’ll show you a man who’s not concerned with being liked.
But Turkington and Swanson only push everyone away to determine who’s worth getting close to. When their respective films first join these men, they’re already well acquainted with the tenuousness of human closeness. Both The Comedy and Entertainment saddle their leads with a weighty duffel of emotional baggage; Swanson’s father deteriorates in a hospital bed throughout The Comedy, and Turkington spends Entertainment making unanswered calls to his estranged daughter. Alverson confronts them with their own vulnerabilities and they’re left with no choice but to develop defense strategies. Both men play their bizarre games to signal simpatico spirits, daring to hope that they might be able to trust someone who sees the funny in their flagrant taboo-busting. Their divisive strategies conceal an embarrassing desire to be cared for, accepted, even loved.
Both men come perilously close to extending beyond their shells of self-imposed isolation, too. In one of a handful of surreal interludes in Entertainment, Turkington’s character wanders into a gas station bathroom to find a pregnant teen in the process of giving birth, violently and helplessly. In a clear effort to find something he lost with his own daughter, Turkington impotently coaches her through an explosive birth, a sight that’s as piercingly hilarious as it is nightmarish. But Alverson then smash cuts to a moment later, when Turkington sits slumped against the wall, a bloodied lump of infant flesh in his arms, his face as inscrutable and disengaged as when his John C. Reilly-played cousin asks him what the point of his act is. He feels unable to emotionally access the situation, too acclimated to assuming the role of the boorish comedian he plays onstage. Even more agonizing is Swanson’s near-brush with sincerity, when he meets the seemingly perfect girl at a party. She’s cute, she’s quick-witted, and she’s just as twisted as he is. Following an impressive volley of increasingly shit-kicking ironic posturing, they adjourn to the boat where Swanson lives (Alverson’s not always especially subtle when conveying the extent to which his character cordon themselves off from the world) for a steamy make-out sesh. Swanson likes her, and yet when she breaks out into a violent seizure, he can’t bring himself to help her. He sits paralyzed by his own insecurity as she spasms. His emotional inertia has a body count.
It becomes clear that in spite of the charge most frequently levied against Alverson’s films—that they’ve gotten lost up their own ass in terms of ironic distance—the opposite is true. His wounding character studies illustrate the corrosion that a lifestyle lived at arm’s distance from the rest of the world has on the soul. (Alverson explores this same idea in his pre-Comedy feature New Jerusalem, in which an overbearing religious fellow attempts to convert his reserved coworker. The non-believer is an unmistakable Alverson creation in his self-spun cocoon of loneliness, but he never engages in the backward-minded signaling for help that defined Alverson’s two most recent films.) Swanson and Turkington are both frustrating and deeply tragic men, desperate for a connection but unable to reach out and accept it. They ruffle feathers and crack jokes about rapists eating at T.G.I. Friday’s as a shibboleth, beckoning someone with matching idiosyncrasies to shake them out of their existential stupor. Alverson approaches filmmaking with the exact same tack, unafraid to scare off everyone but that one guy left in the theater. Because that one guy left, the guy hugging the wall at the party, will be moved by this pair of weirdo dickwads.