In our tour of mumblecore movies, PJ and I are now watching films by Andrew Bujalski, who was also one of the actors in Joe Swanberg’s Hannah Takes the Stairs. Bujalski’s first movie was Funny Ha Ha (2002); the second was Mutual Appreciation (2005). I really enjoyed both films.

Here’s the trailer for Funny Ha Ha:

Funny Ha Ha stars Kate Dollenmayer as Marnie, a recent college graduate who hasn’t quite made the transition from undergraduate to post-undergraduate yet. She’s in love with an unattainable guy, Alex, played by Christian Rudder. Her friends, Rachel and Dave, played by Jennifer L. Schaper and Myles Paige, try to offer her advice (and some perhaps very unproductive distraction), but there’s only so much they can do. Bujalski plays Mitchell, a guy Marnie meets at one of her temp jobs. Mitchell has a crush on Marnie and even tries to get her to like him, but for Marnie he’s definitely no Alex.

Marnie

Marnie (Kate Dollenmayer)

Like other movies in this genre, however, the plot, such as is it, is mostly beside the point. Instead, the movie is really about dialog and character. Maybe it’s actually more accurate to say that it’s really just about character — the dialog and everything that happens is really in service of introducing us to these characters.

I think one of Bujalski’s strengths as a filmmaker is his ability to show us relatively normal people and make us fall in love with them despite their quirks, problems, shortcomings, etc. None of his characters is perfect — least of all Marnie. But we end up loving them anyway. In this sense, his films seem to me to be about just how beautiful people are maybe because of their weaknesses, imperfections, and complications rather than in spite of them.

Dollenmayer is especially great in this movie. The film is really all about her character, and she has to carry the almost every scene in the film. She does a great job of revealing Marnie’s insecurities and desires while keeping her realistic. I kept getting frustrated by Marnie’s decisions as the films progressed; Dollenmayer does a great job keeping that frustration from standing between the character and the audience. She’s really great.

I liked Funny Ha Ha a lot, but I loved Mutual Appreciation. Here’s the trailer:

Even the quickest comparison of the two trailers shows that Mutual Appreciation is a very different looking film from Funny Ha Ha. Using black and white could just be gimmicky, but I think Bujalski uses it well. In this case, the black and white gives the film an almost documentary quality. As I’ve written before, I like mumblecore movies best when they’re using gritty realism. The black and white of this film kind of gets at that same sense of realistic documenting of these characters’ lives.

This movie is primarily about three characters. Alan, played by Justin Rice, is a musician whose band has recently broken up. He therefore moves to New York and hangs out with his friends Ellie and Lawrence, played by Rachel Clift and Bujalski, who are dating. Most of the film follows Alan’s efforts to put a new band together. Eventually, some tension builds up between the friends when Ellie and Alan acknowledge that they “like” each other.

Alan (Justin Rice)

Alan (Justin Rice)

I really like how this movie feels really slow (in a good way). Bujalski takes his time following the characters around. Before we get to the love triangle, I think he wants us to really know these characters and to really like them. Amazingly, his very normal looking characters become kind of beautiful over the course of the movie; by the time the love triangle surfaces to disturb the three friends’ relationship, we have a stake in the outcome because we like and understand all three so well.

The moment I fell in love with the movie was during a scene depicting a conversation between Alan and Lawrence. While Lawrence is out of town for a weekend, Alan and Ellie hang out together; Ellie immediately tells Lawrence that they had a “moment” when he gets back, so now Lawrence is waiting to see whether Alan will tell him what happened. The two friends are having a beer outside a bar (or something). Initially the camera cuts back and forth between the two during their conversation, but for the last part of the scene the camera stays fixed on Lawrence. This emphasizes his growing concern, anxiety, and maybe anger that his friend is carrying on an inane conversation when all he really wants to hear is Alan explain what happened with Ellie over the weekend. (Overall, I’m making this entire triangle situation much less complicated than it really is in the film — there’s a lot more stuff about truth, truthfulness, and perception going on here.)

Not only is the camera work great here, but so is Bujalski as Lawrence. This was the first role that I’ve seen him in where I really admired his acting (not that I mean he’s bad in other movies — he just really shines here). He’s kind of got the likable geek character down pat. In this scene, he has a lot more to do — he shows us Lawrence’s emotions while keeping them subtle, confused, and cautious.

There’s also a great scene in which Alan goes to a party, which has apparently dwindled to just three women. His drunken interactions with them during this scene makes it one of the funniest scenes I’ve seen in a while! I’ll just say that some drag is involved. PJ was almost falling off the couch laughing throughout this scene. I also really like this scene’s contrast with the one before it, in which Alan is at a guy’s house with  his new drummer and the drummer’s sister, who seems to be interested in Alan (to put it mildly). While that “party” is fraught in several ways, the party with the women is kind of liberatory. It’s a great shift from one party to the next.

Finally, the music in both movies is really great too. Much of it is provided by Bishop Allen, a group made up of Justin Rice (Alan in Mutual Appreciation) and Christian Rudder (Alex in Funny Ha Ha). Here’s a sample of their music:

Once I’ve heard more of their music maybe I’ll blog about it too.

So far, Bujalski’s two movies — especially Mutual Appreciation — and Swanberg’s Young American Bodies are my favorite mumblecore works. PJ and I have watched a couple of others, which I hope to blog about soon.

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