I need you.
If a privileged white asshole acts racist and misogynist as a rule because of the emotional pain created by the slow death of a rich father he may not even really like, should we feel empathy for his plight? I think this is the question Rick Alverson is asking with his film The Comedy and yet I want to believe it isn’t because he should know the answer is unequivocally “No.” Maybe Swanson’s (Tim Heidecker) sister-in-law (Liza Kate) can forgive his actions towards her because she knows the man he truly is outside of this tragic circumstance, but Alverson and co-writers Robert Donne and Colm O’Leary never let us behind the curtain to experience anything besides his present indifference to humanity. Why then should we care what happens?
Amongst the random days where Swanson goes around town pretending to be people he isn’t to get a rise out of strangers and pretty much ruin their day is one moment where he finds himself in the hospital. Frustrated by the two young kids that pressed every button on the elevator—they’re ostensibly the innocent version of his malicious troll—he exits onto an unknown floor and walks into the room of an unconscious older gentleman. In a rare show of compassion, Swanson takes a comb and puts it through this patient’s hair with delicacy as his soothing voice attempts comfort. It should be this touching exchange considering how cold he’s been towards his father’s similar predicament and yet all I did was roll my eyes.
What else should I have done? Cried? Swanson tries to be “woke” while duping a wealthy couple and yet comes across hypocritical considering his own family’s background. He walks into a Black bar and pretends he actually cares about the men he’s mocking despite saying, “I’m not trying to mock you.” And he’s extremely cruel (along with his two friends played by Eric Wareheim and James Murphy) to the immigrant taxicab drivers he happens to come across in fits of boredom. Swanson’s humor is crude and often over-the-line, but it also seems to get him laid more often than not with nameless women played by Alexia Rasmussen and Kate Lyn Sheil ending up in his bed or very close to it. He has no redeeming qualities.
I’m therefore unsure of Alverson’s goals. Is he proving that men like Swanson and his equally contemptible pals are monsters never to be given the benefit of the doubt when it comes to deflecting their pain onto others? If so, he’s succeeded. But that goal can’t produce entertainment when it demands the lead character shit on everyone he comes across. Sometimes this means piling on a friend (Jeffrey Jensen) as though he’s the gang’s whipping boy. Sometimes it’s giving his sister-in-law a hard time, calling women whores in the hope they’ll clap back with their own provocative insult because “comedy,” or lamenting his good fortune by stealing a dishwashing job from someone in need so he can feel better about never having lifted a finger in his life.
Is it satire? It’s played for sentiment too often for that. Is it actually comedy? Not unless we’re supposed to laugh at how unfunny these characters are (we might considering how many times Swanson desperately travels beyond the cringe threshold to seek a chuckle of approval for his off-color stream of consciousness bigotry). Perhaps I’m not “open-minded” enough to appreciate what’s happening, but I don’t think anyone should since it plays like guys vomiting the vile rhetoric they know they shouldn’t unless it’s packaged beneath a façade of fictionalized personas. The Comedy goes beyond irreverence and heads into plain and simple persecution. “Isn’t it funny how people who look like us say these things and mean it?” Sorry, guys. I think you might be those people.