If a director sets out to provoke and torment his audience, and achieves this proposed goal with overwhelming triumph, do you praise him for his successful effort, or scathe his feature with unbridled hatred for being obligated to endure it? Despite an extremely small theatrical release mostly limited to VOD, Rick Alverson's The Comedy has already gained a notorious reputation for being one of the most polarizing films of the year. It's a heavily improvised, glacially paced piece of experimental cinema; with a plot mostly consisting of a wealthy and sociopathic hipster messing with innocent civilians for no discernible reason. Occasionally disturbing, sometimes unbearable, frequently painful, and almost always uncomfortable, Alverson has directed the equivalent of torture porn for the overly empathetic. This is the very definition of a one-time-only film: It's very well constructed and acted, but I couldn't be bribed to watch it again.
One of the first scenes involves our antihero, fearlessly played by Tim Heidecker of Tim and Eric Awesome Show fame, sitting by the bedside of his comatose father, while a male caretaker checks the unconscious man's condition. It's the early morning, and while Heidecker is clearly hungover from the previous night's spree of booze fueled merriment, he's already moved onto his first glass of bourbon of the day. He slowly begins a conversation with the caretaker; making small talk over what jobs are entailed in the caretaker's line of work. Then, out of nowhere, Heidecker dramatically shifts the tone of their discussion by asking whether the caretaker has ever dealt with a prolapsed anus. The flow of their encounter no longer resembles ordinary conversation, but rather an improv sketch where only one of the performers understands they're in a bit. The caretaker is too shocked and disgusted to respond to the question, and Heidecker uses the silence as an opportunity to push the discomfort level forward. He then goes on to describe prolapsed anuses in graphic detail, and cracks a double entendre about what it'd be like to fix a prolapsed anus with a female doctor. Remaining silent as Heidecker monologues about this damaged part of the anatomy, the caretaker is in an implied state of infuriated shock as he finishes the procedure, and then storms out upon his completion.
Almost every other scene in the film plays similar to the one summarized above: Heidecker puts himself into a situation where he's positive those around him will not leave, and attempts to push the target to their absolute breaking point. This format is repeated multiple times almost exactly; with the encounters gradually increasing in extreme awkwardness and possible consequences. Making these scenes even more emotionally intense is Alverson's direction. Though I wasn't on set, it's difficult to imagine Alverson saying "cut" more than a couple times throughout the film's production. He lets the camera linger, almost like a fly on-the-wall, witnessing every conversation in its entirety. This is not a man who will sugar coat anything, or give his antihero an unjustified shot at redemption. Alverson understands that Heidecker is playing a sociopathic and self-loathing manchild, and revels in the inherent misery of that idea. The repetition of the same scene becomes dull at times, but this is necessary to drive the main point of Heidecker's character home: This is an almost soulless manchild, who's seemingly sole purpose in life is to make those around him as miserable as he is. And while he occasionally attempts to leave his self-deprecating existence, he finds ordinary life too difficult to inhabit.
It's impossible to underrate Tim Heidecker's performance; an uncompromising, masterful example of how constant improvisation can be used effectively in a dramatic film. It'd be simple to write him off as a far more realistic and depression variation of a Sasha Baron Cohen creation, based off the way he interacts with people, but the performance is far too layered for such a generalization. Take, for example, in which he attempts to seduce an epileptic woman who he may have developed feelings for. For a few brief moments, Heidecker shows a brief bit of humanity while innocently flirting with her in a comedic striptease (as opposed to a scene where he attempts to pick up a girl by defending Hitler). Then, as he begins to make a move on her, she jumps into a fierce epileptic fit. Rather than help his one possible chance at redemption, he does nothing. Displaying no emotion whatsoever, he sips on a glass of bourbon while waiting for the seizure to end. He's not concerned or distressed at all; simply bored. There's a solid minute and a half of Heidecker just sitting, drinking his bourbon, and passively waiting. It's the most disturbing moment of the film by a significant margin, mostly stemming from Heidecker's ability to sell this character in a way that we can actively despise him, but still find him to be compelling.
Another aspect of the film which works incredibly well is its soundtrack. While this could be more opinionated based of my own personal taste, music supervisor Chris Swanson has arranged one of the best mixtapes for lo-fi rock I've ever seen. It also helped that the music is used creatively in a way that helps the occasionally disjointed flow of the film; especially a Central Park softball game set to a section of "The Disintegration Loops" by composer William Basinski. Though the hour long, musical epic will likely never leave the specter of 9/11 that it will forever be related to, this imaginative use of the track may be as close as it will ever get. Soon after watching the film, I picked up the soundtrack on iTunes. Even for those who may have little to no interest in the feature itself, its soundtrack definitely deserves a listen, or maybe two.
Rick Alverson's the comedy is undoubtably one of the most polarizing features to be released this year, even with its very limited release. Because of a fascinating lead performance by Tim Heidecker, along with multiple scenes of well executed discomfort, I thought it was very well done, but it would be incredibly easy to determine why someone would hate this movie. It's hostile, experimental, glacially paced, and repetitious, with an almost soulless sociopath for a protagonist. Unless you're absolutely positive you can sit through 95 minutes of an emotional endurance test, it'd be a terrible idea to watch this movie. To answer my thesis question at the beginning of the review, if a director sets out to provoke and torment his audience, and achieves this goal with overwhelming triumph, you appreciate his film deeply for what it is, but you refuse to recommend it to anyone who may not be prepared to take on the challenge.