SXSW 2012 Review: THE COMEDY
One of the established tenets of popular storytelling is that the audience must be offered the opportunity to sympathize with the characters they're being asked to invest in. Failure to provide a point of access for the audience often results in anger and resentment, the feeling that a storyteller is punishing the very people he or she is meant to entertain. THE COMEDY has proven to be a divisive film because it refuses to offer any such points of identification. We observe privileged men behaving in a cruel and immature manner amongst themselves and throughout the world they inhabit. Many audience members will question why these undeniably despicable people are deserving of their attention when being in their presence serves only to create discomfort.
The film asks a variety of questions about our relationships to the media we consume but perhaps the most interesting is this: Why do we only want to experience fiction that is easy for us to absorb and that reinforces our existing perceptions of acceptable or desired conduct? The central figure is Swanson, a wealthy hipster who carries a deep pain that we never fully understand. He frequently puts himself in situations that suggest a desire for human connection despite any larger understanding of how that might actually come to pass.
His peer group is comprised of other comfortably affluent and completely detached man-children who not only avoid meaningful discussion but define much of their relationship through the mockery of sincerity and emotional honesty. Swanson floats through the film in a state of perpetual numbness, occasionally presented with opportunities to step outside his own disconnectedness. He is either incapable or unwilling to engage once these opportunities emerge and the film seems to be prodding us to decide which of those two options it might be.
The desensitization displayed by the characters is unrelenting to the point of being oppressive but nothing that occurs ever seems implausible. The almost agressive apathy exhibited is a mode of behavior that most of us witness on a daily basis in small doses but choose to ignore. The aimless, self-absorbed, destructive personalities being documented are representative of a growing portion of the real world population and that is what makes the experience of watching THE COMEDY so distressing.
Tim Heidecker is flawless in his debut as a leading man. This is the sort of seamless, lived-in performance that many actors build towards for decades. His portrayal of Swanson is quietly intense, completely unpredictable and fascinating in its ugliness. While immersed in near-constant unpleasantness, Heidecker's sad eyes and subtle facial expressions allow us to recognize a flicker of longing that prevents any sort of outright dismissal of THE COMEDY as a portrait of a sociopath.
Director Rick Alverson shows considerable control over the proceedings, always stretching a scene to the breaking point without losing the tension he has worked so hard to build. He has created a work that many will reject but that also shows a thoughtfulness and an awareness of modern social structures that most dramatic films can only pretend at. He has fearlessly captured the confusion, isolation, and inability to connect that plagues many people but he also has the intelligence to avoid offering definitive explanations. It is enough to accurately present the dilemma and to that end THE COMEDY is a masterpiece of observation. It isn't likely to help you understand the outside world any better but it might force you to question how involved you are in it and how your participation in the world may be far more removed than you like to think.
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