Mutual Appreciation & Funny Ha Ha
Dir. - Andrew Bujalski
Pardon me if I start this one off on a rant but one of the reasons I’m feeling a lot of hate for Kevin Smith these days is because I place a good majority of the blame on him for killing the indie comedy, not to mention that steamer Clerks 2. Summer of ’94, man. Clerks dropped and it all ended. Do you remember what it was like before then? Remember Metropolitan and Barcelona? Remember Slacker, Spanking the Money, Simple Men, Flirting, Kicking and Screaming? These great little movies were popping up all over the place in the late 80’s/early 90’s. It was a renaissance for smart low-concept comedy auteurs with tiny budgets. The Weinsteins were a but a blip in Hollywood (Harvey was actually trying to direct his own micro-budget comedy), laserdisc was a fun fad for rich guys in sweatpants, VHS rentals were at their peak and small distribution wings were popping up all over the place to get these small beautiful movies out there. Then Clerks shows up like the happy-drunk party crasher with all his blunt dirty jokes, handing out free beers and bong hits to the crowd and running off with your date. Think I’m making this up – on imdb.com, peteyrulz from Australia says about Funny Ha Ha, “Save your money for the next Kevin Smith film”.
Well Andrew Bujalski is reassuring proof that some people didn’t follow the crowd to the after party. I swear: I’d given up hope. But Funny Ha Ha and Mutual Appreciation (and to a certain extent The Puffy Chair) have proven there’s still some life out there of guys with a camera, a witty script, a few game friends, modest dreams and a unique personal vision. Sure it all sounds a bit pretentious, but if I have to see another comedy about a gay love triangle, some movie about a guy trying to make a movie, or a fucking Edward Burns circle jerk, I’m gonna throw my TV out the goddamn window. Give me something honest. And that’s what Bujalski has in spades. It’s such a feat that critics even started throwing comparisons to Cassavetes at the guy. Now while I don’t think that’s quite fair, on a few different levels, I do think his movies are that refreshing knock upside the head that Cassavetes did with his best stuff.
But these two movies are more or less comedies, albeit downbeat ones. Funny Ha Ha focuses its attention on a young woman named Marnie who’s stuck in that period between college and adult responsibilities. No job, still drinking too much, no solid relationship, etc. We simply follow Marnie along for a few days and nights as she learns a couple of life lessons and takes a couple small steps forward. A short-sighted description of Mutual Appreciation can almost as this same story from the male perspective – replace Funny Ha Ha’s outskirts of Boston location for NYC and the emotionally stunted Marnie with would be indie rock star Alan. If you’re looking for high-concept or thickly woven plots, Drew Barrymore and Adam Sandler have some good stuff for you. This is slice-of-life; a sad smile speaks a thousand words kind of stuff. And while some might say, what’s so interesting about watching a bunch of mopey twentysomethings? Well someone’s gotta make movies about the people I know. Perhaps a confident go-getter with a bright future and life by the reins isn’t going to find much to identify with the people in Bujalski’s movies. But I don’t know many of those people and perhaps some of them will find it interesting the way the other half lives.
What most people will find interesting about Funny Ha Ha and Mutual Appreciation, especially the later, is the conversational tone of the films. It’s the opposite of the kind of theatricality of a Hal Hartley movie or David Mamet or Kevin Smith for that matter. The dialog comes when it wants to and how it wants to. But its delivery isn’t sloppy or meandering as some might think. It’s purposeful, and to me, genuine. In a way that could be evocative of Cassavetes but really more like plain old good writing. It goes back to French new wave and can be seen in other more recent good stuff like David Gordon Green, Larry Fessenden movies, Linklater’s better stuff; it has a realness to it. While Bujalski may not have the visual power some of those people have, he knows how to direct and edit – when to let a scene go a little longer and when to cut. And that talent combined with good writing chops is hard to find.
Take it away Padraic.
I agree completely. Bujalski is a director that has the rare ability to show you something you think you’ve already seen, but upon reflection, you realize is completely original. I mean, these two movies just feel like they should have already been made; you’ve seen this story, you know these people, hasn’t this been done before? With the exception of Slacker, no? What comes across is not so much that Bujalski is derivative of other filmmakers, but that he just gets life (as least life lived by a certain subset of people) perfect; I can’t believe I’m writing this, but he just gets it right. From all the awkward moments, sloppy kisses and cheap beer cans, Bujalski demonstrates that great line from Kerouac (recently cribbed by The Hold Steady’s Craig Finn) that “boys and girls in America have such a sad time together.”
I also agree that Bujalski has the touch of a writer more than director; his camera work (and editing) rarely goes beyond point and hold. There are some finely crafted scenes, especially the rock show in Mutual Appreciation, but for the most part, the characters drive the story. Again, this should be easy—just put a few compelling faces in front of the camera and let them talk—but it comes across as refreshing in a film culture where almost everyone wants to be a minimalist artist or some cut and flash hotshot (or, in Soderberg’s case, both).
What really stuck out was how well crafted the female characters were; I wouldn’t trust the man who didn’t fall head over heals for either Funny Ha Ha’s Kate Dollenmayer or Mutual Appreciation’s Rachel Clift. Bujalski even has the nerve and, despite appearances, self-confidence to cast himself in both movies as the jilted friend, the nice-guy loser who can’t compete with the sensitive guys with great hair. If there is any flaw in these two movies it is that, ultimately, they’re the same picture, with the nice guy, the cool guy, and the conflicted girl, with only a slight shift of emphasis towards the cool guy in Mutual Appreciation.
I do hope that this formula changes, however, or we may see another one-trick pony, a la Sean’s whipping boy Kevin Smith (though this trick is better, if not funnier, than Smith’s). The great independent comedic directors (for me, Jarmusch, Linklater and Anderson) were began with cheap cameras and some good friends, but were able to transcend the level of identification that is mostly the strength of Funny Ha Ha and Mutual Appreciation. Slacker, Stranger Than Paradise and Bottle Rocket were not great movies solely because you recognized yourself in the characters, but because these characters were presented within the context of an artistic vision. These directors have had mixed follow-ups, but it has been mostly due to thematic ambition (and in Linklater’s case, selling out a few times), and not because of a lack of ideas. Bujalski may have his Ghost Dog out there, and there are scores of directors who would kill to nail two films as perfectly as he has, but for now his body of work has all the diversity of…well, post-Mallrats Smith.
Oh, and Sean, I love the image of you throwing your TV out the window to protest a new Ed Burns movie, but the act might be as pointless and futile as anything done by a Bujalski character. Remember, you live on the first floor.
Good point, Paddy, I think I got myself a bit worked up there. But even on the first floor I think the point will get made; and I wouldn’t want to hurt anyone, you know? I think if my neighbor with the PAMOLA license plate on her Subaru station wagon sees my tv in the front lawn below a broken window – she’ll know I accidentally watched the new Ed Burns movie.
My last comment is just reinforcing something that you touched on – Bujalski has a fine eye for casting. Not only Kate and Rachel as you mentioned, but I defy anyone not to find Justin Rice as Alan in Mutual Appreciation impeccably perfect casting - and not just because he may know how to play guitar. He’s so damn charismatic it’s a crime if he doesn’t find a niche for himself in film or tv. Before someone else tries to point out that Bujalski probably wrote the role for him, that doesn’t matter much to me. He knew this relatively untested guy could pull it off and he was more than right. A good stable of actors you can use shorthand with can be any director’s best asset. To drag my comparison to the nth level of derision – Kevin Smith will put whatever guy he was talking to on the phone that weekend into his film. That’s not to say he doesn’t have his stable of actors – lord knows he does, but it all seems fairly interchangeable to me.
I swear I didn’t mean to get into this, but I still like Chasing Amy a lot. Hell, I was there at the Boston Film Festival’s pre-release showing of Clerks and even managed to ask the guy a question. I remember reading the script to Dogma before it was released and being pretty damn jazzed about it. But after I saw that movie it became clear that Kevin Smith is his own worse enemy. I think someone could make an enduringly great movie out of one of his scripts. But I don’t know if he can. And it’s for all the same reasons that Bujalski does make great movies.