Living in New York, one is probably familiar with somebody like Swanson, the aging hipster played by Tim Heidecker in the new film, “The Comedy.” He can be seen walking the streets of Williamsburg, frequenting bars while holding a Pabst Blue Ribbon, dressed in a polo shirt and cut-off shorts.
“The Comedy” is devoid of any traditional plot line, but that is precisely Swanson’s problem — he is, quite simply, lost. Writer and director Rick Alverson, who has previously directed other character studies like “The Builder” and “New Jerusalem,” asks questions about life and purpose in his films. “The Comedy” continues to ask such questions while depicting the life of a man who belongs to an archetype familiar to most New Yorkers.
At times the film can drag or feel directionless, but it does so deliberately. Just as the audience realizes no specific or momentous event is going to drive “The Comedy” forward, Swanson, too, is waiting just as eagerly for something to happen.
Alverson’s screenplay contains few lines of explicit emotion. Swanson’s conversation with his closest friends, who pass their time drinking and participating in recreational activities, is often hilarious but stilted, mocking and buried under heaps of sarcasm. Swanson simply cannot speak genuinely even among those he loves most, hiding behind different personas and facades.
But during the moments of silence that Alverson strategically incorporates between sections of dialogue — the awkward pauses and the shots of Swanson staring off into the distance — the audience can divine some meaning. It’s the emptiness in Swanson’s gaze and his desire for direction, feeling and human connection that leads the viewer to genuinely care for him, and, despite moments of frustration and annoyance, actually begin to sympathize with the character.
While Swanson struggles to make genuine connections with the people around him, Heidecker certainly succeeds in connecting with the audience. Best known for his comedic work with co-star Eric Wareheim on “Tim and Eric Awesome Show, Great Job!,” he transitions brilliantly into his first dramatic role, catching audiences off-guard with a meaningful performance and a surprising ability to give depth to a seemingly superficial character.
“The Comedy” certainly delivers its fair share of jokes, but not as many as one might expect from a film that bears the name “Comedy.” The film is a drama disguised as comedy; there is a superficial layer of funny dialogue, but beneath that layer lies a quest for emotional connection and honest human feeling. The true comedy is not so much the spectacle of Swanson’s life as it is the comedy
of human existence.
A version of this article appeared in the Tuesday, Nov. 13 print edition. Jaime Mishkin is a staff writer. Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.