The movies’ long tradition of funny fat guys continues with “The Comedy,” except that its putative star, Tim Heidecker, is merely fattish and funny only to himself. But he struts with a waddle all the same, like a baby who’s mistaken himself for a man. Some version of both Heidecker’s assumed identity confusion and that tradition of tubby humor are under consideration in this movie, which Rick Alverson directed and co-wrote with Robert Donne and Colm O’Leary.
In the opening shot, Heidecker is drunk and partying with his buddies — including Eric Wareheim, Heidecker’s partner in sketch drollery; the comedian Gregg Turkington; and the musician James Murphy, who recently stopped being LCD Soundsystem. They jam their crotches into each other, but it’s not sexual because nothing about these men is sexual. It’s a moment that does indicate that Alverson wants to say something. An hour and a half later he hasn’t said it. The movie, which is set mostly in the Williamsburg neighborhood of Brooklyn, N.Y., is a critique of white-guy privilege, of Williamsburg’s hipsterism, of how men conduct themselves in comedies.
It operates in exactly the opposite way so-called bromances do. It’s as self-conscious as parts of “Knocked Up” and “21 Jump Street,” and as preoccupied with excretion and secretion as those movies’ peers. But it’s sucked dry of rambunctiousness. The jokes are desiccated, too. Alverson is working in a state of suspended irony. What’s he after is more specific than what hangs on the Judd Apatow family tree.
Heidecker leaves his family’s mansion, pads around the block, until he happens upon some men landscaping a yard. When the owners wander by, he says something to them in loose Spanish about his men wanting to use the pool. He’s assumed the role of the boss, and after one of the owners acquiesces to the pool, his work is done, and it’s off to the next stunt, unfashionable social position (feudalism could have really worked, Hitler actually did some good, he argues), or harassment (“Why don’t you guys have satellite radio in these cabs,’’ he yells at one taxi driver). It’s off to drink near skeptical black strangers in a bar (“I’m trying to be honest with you, and you all up in my griiiiill”). It’s off to his boat.
The lonely provocateur Heidecker plays is named Swanson, which gets at the presumed ritziness Alverson is after. Swanson is 35, he takes menial jobs — or plays at them — because he can imagine nothing else for himself. He sits at the bedside of his (symbolically) dying father and mocks his male nurse. The closest Swanson comes to sexual affection is passively watching the woman he’s lured to his boat have a seizure.
Again, none of this is necessarily funny. That’s the extent of the irony here. Yet the film evokes so many comedians whose schticks would be peers of Swanson’s — Russell Brand, Zach Galifianakis, Seth Rogen, Jonah Hill, Nick Swardson, the men of so-called mumblecore movies and “Jackass,” Sacha Baron Cohen — and distills their lunacy all the way down to self-negating leisure-class dada.
There’s no filmmaking to enable the amusements the way Richard Lester’s did with the Beatles or Jean Luc-Godard’s can do with almost anything. “The Comedy” thrives on unalloyed contradiction: unfunny funniness, innocent guilt, self-conscious obliviousness, feel-good racism.
But what it doesn’t achieve is transcendence, the way, say, “Holy Motors,” Leos Carax’s current, similarly arbitrary adventure in personae, does. Lena Dunham’s “Girls” is another version of what Alverson is doing with “The Comedy.” The younger women on her HBO show are as self-obsessed as the men in this movie. But “Girls” is simultaneously funny and mortifying and true. It’s also guided by the distinct sensibility of a woman with a vision. Dunham perceives the assorted laws of the wider world and can mine comedy from the failure to both abide by and transgress them. Alverson might be thinking as big as Dunham is, but his movie feels smaller.
Swanson’s preoccupation with feces and semen befits a man whose life is as flaccid and constipated as his. At some point, he finds himself drifting around a swimming pool, and it’s tempting to think of Dustin Hoffman sinking to the bottom of the deep end in “The Graduate.” But there’s a difference. Swanson’s pool is empty.Wesley Morris can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.