Is it one of the year's best movies or its outright worst? You have one last day to decide for yourself as Rick Alverson's The Comedy, the polarizing hipster-bashing provocation starring Tim & Eric's Tim Heidecker, closes tonight at The Belcourt. Steve Erickson's already stirred up fans with his mixed-to-negative review in this week's Scene:
Meet Swanson. As embodied by cult TV star Tim Heidecker, he's a chubby 35-year-old trust-fund wastrel waiting to inherit millions when his terminally ill father dies. His idea of a fun date is staring ahead blankly as a woman has an epileptic seizure. He likes going to a bar filled with African-Americans to ask for "black ass" and "bitches." Are you getting the notion that the title of Rick Alverson's film The Comedy is ironic, even if irony is a concept that it seems determined to attack?
The Comedy never gestures towards broad generational statements. To its credit, it critiques its characters without editorializing about them. Even so, it can't help suggesting that Swanson's numb cruelty isn't just his own problem. His friends show a few more signs of vulnerability, but they can be equally big jerks: harassing a cab driver because he won't turn on the radio, for instance. One of them mixes nudie pictures in with slides of his family from his childhood, suggesting a particularly odd pathology. Swanson casts most women as victims, but the waitress (Kate Lyn Sheil) with whom he works responds in kind when he's in verbal attack mode. Startled, he cuts himself.
Critic Steven Hyden has praised The Comedy as a grand demolition job on the concept of a thriving bohemian counterculture: For him, the film demonstrates the uselessness and hypocrisy of the notion of "indie." It certainly engages in more than its share of hipster-punching: Its characters' values have more in common with Donald Trump than Kurt Cobain. Beneath the veil of irony, is The Comedy a plea for idealism and sincerity?
The problem with this reading is that Alverson's use of shock value is hard to separate from Swanson's. At this point in American culture, mere profanity and explicit sex aren't transgressive anymore. Like Alex Ross Perry's more accomplished The Color Wheel, The Comedy raises the stakes by introducing racism into the mix, as well as more general reactionary politics: Swanson sings Hitler's praises and pines for feudalism. It's true that extreme right-wing politics have been lurking in objects of hipster fascination, like the Norwegian black metal scene, but The Comedy never makes it clear whether Swanson adopts them with a straight face or, more likely, out of rebellion against liberal piety. ...
If you live in certain trendy neighborhoods in certain cities, you may recognize something genuine in Alverson's characters as depicted in The Comedy. But what then? The hipster has few defenders, and the term itself has became a lazy, almost meaningless insult, often thrown around by people who look like their targets. The Comedy zooms in on New York's Williamsburg with an almost anthropological focus. The nastiness spawned by money and privilege knows no bounds, extending far beyond Brooklyn. But you'd never guess that from Alverson's film.
It plays once tonight at 9:30. If you go, watch for Heidecker's Tim & Eric partner Eric Wareheim, LCD Soundsystem's James Murphy and the artist otherwise known as Neil Hamburger. That crew should drive the hipsters away.