In Rick Alverson’s The Comedy, 35-year-old Swanson (Tim Heidecker) is the vilest imaginable specimen of the hipster beast, a walking back-issue of Vice magazine, sporting the telltale beard, Wayfarers, Topsiders, and a PBR gut – shirtless all too often. Despite his trust-fund millions, he’s always seen brushing his teeth in public restrooms because he’s neglected to fill up on running water for his houseboat. On the dry land of Williamsburg, Brooklyn, he is surrounded by a posse of like-minded omega males (Eric Wareheim, James Murphy), who have no career ambitions, no creative aspirations, and few recourses to manliness. By day, they huff and puff on vintage Schwinns; by night, they swap sarcastic reverse insults (“I honor your friendship”) into the wee, boozy hours.
All this is credible enough until Swanson exits the airtight bubble of his peers to bully New York City at large. Here the film veers from Cassavetes-style realism into an experiment in sociological torture-porn. Like the pathologically spoiled George Amberson Minafer in The Magnificent Ambersons – galloping around in a pony-drawn buggy, wearing his Little Lord Fauntleroy outfit, and telling ministers to go to hell – Swanson whips up and down the East River in a dinghy, hurling “unserious” racial and sexual slurs at service-industry workers, random bystanders, and extended relatives, occasionally pretending to be a gardener, a gift-shop employee or a cabdriver for the sheer thrill of harassing strangers. To be sure, all minority groups are targeted equally, but Swanson, a wealthy WASP, lacks the Borscht Belt license of a Don Rickles or a Larry David. His anti-PC stance and force field of impunity become his character’s only defining attributes. And while Ambersons ended with George getting disinherited and mangled in an accident, there’s no “comeuppance” in Alverson’s world.
The film retreads much of the anti-comedic territory already bulldozed in Heidecker and Wareheim’s own Tim & Eric’s Billion Dollar Movie, retaining the scatological flavor but none of the surrealism. (The only thing Alverson spares us, by contrast, is a Heidecker sex scene, though we do get the flabby full monty in the first five minutes.) I suspect there may be a gender gap in the reception of this film; some of my male friends who say they hate HBO’s Girls have praised The Comedy, which I find baffling. But rather than join the dog pile of critics already charging misogyny, I’ll pick a different bone: the whole premise of “hipsterdom” as a cultural fact.
Contrary to what Alverson (and countless New York Times editorials) would attest, “hipster” is not a real human category, like “vegetarian” or “AARP member.” It’s exclusively an other-directed label, a cultural Sasquatch always described in third person. Why does Alverson, a resident of Richmond, Va., need to travel to Brooklyn to locate aging hipsters? Because hipsters are always other people, in far-off lands and different economic circumstances than ours. Nobody would self-identify as such, except, perhaps, for that one lunatic in the audience at the SXSW screening I attended, who wanted everybody to know he was “in on it,” laughing like a hyena at every racist joke and mention of the words “anus,” “penis,” and “vagina.” If you’re that guy, enjoy the hilarity of The Comedy. If not, you may want to fold your body into the crevice of your theatre seat and disappear into the darkness.