By Forrest Cardamenis | Criticwire March 22, 2013 at 6:30PM
To many of us, our first understanding of "The Comedy," directed by Rick Alverson and starring Tim Heidecker of the Tim and Eric duo, was that it was not a comedy at all. In fact, it is a dark, distinctly un-funny movie, one that Jordan Hoffman reported as having "more walkouts than anything I've seen at [Sundance]." But Hoffman went on to recommend the film, or at least to recommend it to a very select group of people. When the film arrived on VOD later in the year, the reaction was the same. Many were appalled, some saw something there, and a few loved its unforgiving vision, interpreting it as a critique of excessive irony and the privileged lifestyle of the Brooklyn hipster. Tim Heidecker's hipster, however, is quite extreme, making a mockery of intellectualism in attempts to be worldly, spouting nonsense about everything from hobos to Hitler to "prolapsed anuses." With a DVD release coming on Tuesday, the debate will no doubt be reignited for those who missed it the first time.
So which is "The Comedy"? A detestable portrait of a loathsome man, unimaginably cruel and racist, or a critique of the irony-coated lifestyle that encourages such behavior? Even its biggest defenders, notably Steven Hyden, says that the hatred toward the film is justified, that those who hate it may very well "get it." Here's a broader look of what the critics are saying.
PRO: It's a remarkably full and ambiguous character study.
"While I have justified everything as inept attempts at connecting with and participating in the real world, Swanson's actions could also be interpreted as a rebellion against his father and his inherited life of privilege, or it could just be a 90-minute cry for help from an incredibly depressed man." -- Don Simpson, Smells Like Screen Spirit
CON: That doesn't make it watchable.
"It is, I think, intended to be a satire -- a comment on materialism and on not-quite-young people who know nothing but entitlement, shocking us to make a point. Instead, it's just irritating and endless, like a drunk who sidles up to you and won't go away." -- Moira Macdonald, Seattle Times
PRO: It has a great central performance.
"There's no one better to play this role than Heidecker. Swanson carries a lot of emotional weight and this character needs an actor who can smile while verbally abusing someone and pushing them to their limits. He also needs to be a man who can say the most shocking things without a hint of expression...Heidecker knows how to deliver it in the strangest, yet most effective ways." -- Chase Whale, We Got This Covered
CON: It's more antagonistic than funny.
"Rick Alverson's 'The Comedy' feels like a new benchmark in Tim Heidecker's ongoing campaign of audience antagonism. A more appropriate title might have been The Anti-Comedy, considering the extent to which the actor -- one half of Adult Swim’s dadaist duo Tim & Eric -- doubles down on his trademark alienation techniques." -- A.A. Dowd, Time Out Chicago
PRO: It's truthful.
"'The Comedy' isn't easy viewing. It’s a give and take. But if you are looking for challenging cinema that speaks uncomfortable truths, look no further than right here." -- Jesse Klein, Hammer to Nail
CON: Even satirically, it doesn't convince.
"Just as your patience wears thin (tired pro-Hitler party chat?), the movie loses its conviction, with the occasional snatch of "he's hurting privately" music and an unpersuasive effort to push through the scrim of cynicism." -- Joshua Rothkopf, Time Out New York
I could go on, sampling many similar passages from like-minded reviews. It's interesting that so few reviews talk about the film in terms of anything besides content, and those that do gloss over it with a second. But that's the kind of film that "The Comedy" is, a content-driven critique, depiction, ironic or "ironic" look at some character stereotype in the realm of privileged or a "hipster" in the most pejorative sense. Most critics appear to make up their mind based on how responsible or likable such a portrayal is; what's remarkable is that even while they isolate this unique aspect of the film, reviews are still all over the place, as the Criticwire Grade Snapshot shows.
Josh Spiegel, writing for Sound on Sight, contemplated, "Is Swanson meant to be some kind of damning statement against the hipster culture in New York City, or perhaps a warning sign of what’s to come for such younger crowds if they don’t outgrow their affectations? The choice by director and co-writer Rick Alverson to leave this up in the air, to back away from judging Swanson and his cronies one way or the other, is both the film’s greatest strength and something of a weakness." It turns out that most viewers either see only the strength or the weakness, and for that reason, "The Comedy," love it or hate it, is a unique experience on the strength (or lack thereof, for some) of its content alone.