The Novocaine Gang

We’re approaching a threshold where the term “hipster” has come to describe so many different off-putting and ill-defined characteristics that it’s become practically meaningless — a lazy cop-out label for a faceless group of bougie snobs who we are familiar with, but who no one seems to identify with. We know that these Twittering, upper class douchebags exist, but who exactly are they?

Swanson (Tim Heidecker), the unlikable Williamsburg 30-something at the center of Rick Alverson’s “The Comedy,” is an almost cartoonish embodiment of all of these traits: entitled, lazy, insufferably bored and completely terrified of sincerity. But “The Comedy” is no gentle parody of any specific cultural subset; it’s an urgent, original and at times shockingly real investigation of an anesthetized generation desperate for feeling. And at this moment, it feels like a wakeup call.

Alverson, who also co-wrote the script, is acutely familiar with modern social interactions (the sarcasm, the endless charade of joke built upon joke). When Swanson meets an attractive girl at work — a dishwashing job he takes out of pure curiosity — they jokingly fire insults at one another as a means of flirtation. It’d almost be endearing if it weren’t for the fact that it’s the only way these characters seem capable of communicating.

In the tradition of “Arthur,” “The Comedy” plays as a series of Swanson’s day-to-day mundanities, following his feeble attempts to fight his encroaching ennui by way of ironic public performance and idiotic stunts. He pays a cab driver $400 to let him drive the cab for several minutes. He poses as a landscaper in order to request that his “guys” swim in their wealthy employer’s pool. He and his friends (played by fellow “Tim and Eric” namesake Eric Wareheim and LCD Soundsystem’s James Murphy) fabricate rituals in a public church.

Much of the film’s realism, however, can be attributed to Heidecker’s performance. Fans of Tim & Eric’s Adult Swim sketch show have likely surmised that the comedian is tremendously talented in veering between the slapstick and the very dark (see also: the duo’s short films “The Terrys” and “Father & Son”). Here, Heidecker’s delivery is subtle, as Swanson’s sincerity forces its way out of endless maddening farce at every turn. In one scene, Swanson imitates a pre-Civil War slave owner in the presence of his unamused sister-in-law. The amusing act uncomfortably overstays its welcome before Swanson manages to cough up a sincere question about his incarcerated brother.

The hand-held cinéma vérité style lends itself to the anthropological nature of the film, but it also makes Alverson’s more abstract poetic liberties all the more shocking, as when Swanson’s single pathetic romantic encounter takes a jarring, surreal turn.

But “The Comedy” is most commendable for its careful deconstruction of the hipster mythology, using its Pabst-guzzling, fixie-riding antihero as a microcosm for a much larger cultural phenomenon that has yet to be scrutinized to this degree in contemporary cinema. What’s more is that Alverson actually reaches to provide us with a few compelling answers during the film’s gorgeous final minutes. (A-)

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