Charm School: Andrew Bujalski’s “Funny Ha Ha”
by Michael Koresky with responses from Nick Pinkerton and Jeff Reichert
[indieWIRE’s weekly reviews are written by critics from Reverse Shot.]
Completed in 2002 and having acquired a sizable cult following since that time, “Funny Ha Ha” is finally, mercifully being released in theaters this week. It may seem somewhat fanatical on my part to proclaim this as an event of any magnitude seeing as how “Funny Ha Ha” itself is one of the most disarmingly modest pieces of filmmaking to come from an American artist in quite some time, but it’s a testimony to the film’s plucky distributors that director Andrew Bujalski‘s forthrightly guileless debut is seeing the light of day, however small the rollout. The film is more like a 90-minute stammer, a hemming, hawing, unobstructed plunge into filmmaking at its most appealingly coarse.
Undaunted, “Funny Ha Ha” wholly embraces the moments, filmically and textually, that others try to avoid at all costs: unpolished sound design, blatant actorly awkwardness, lack of narrative momentum. It would be simplistic and unedifying to merely attribute all this to low production values or first-film compromise — like early Linklater or Jarmusch, its aesthetics are perfectly wedded to its characters’ lack of spatial self-awareness. To invoke those names may seem a bit heady for an unpretentious 16mm charmer focused on the unthreatening romantic travails of a rootless recent college graduate named Marnie (Kate Dollenmayer), but then why does Bujalski’s film, in tone and in spirit, feel like something of a revelation?
Perhaps because “Funny Ha Ha” does not come across as a stepping-stone film, a debut cheapie introducing a director the world on his way to “bigger, better” things: there is clearly a distinct, singular sensibility at work here, and one that is desperately needed as the line between indie and studio further dissolves, and more independent distributors are subsumed into the superstructure. In 1986, Spike Lee‘s “She’s Gotta Have It” felt unlike anything else predominantly because of the respect it showed for its own very specific milieu, its cultural significance a crucial byproduct of the value it placed upon its community. The respect granted to a generation (made vulgar by studio releases like “American Pie” or too polished and finite in things like the recent “In Good Company”) is something that cannot be faked, and Bujalski’s extraordinarily resigned document of twentysomething angst in a Boston suburb is remarkable for its sheer lack of angst. There’s nary a grandiose statement to be found, just the gradual accruing of behavioral tics and daily routine, all of which add up to something wholly serene and becalming.
Hangdog and sketched in minimal strokes, Bujalski’s cast of newcomers and nonprofessional actors never jockey for screen presence, never attempt to chew the scenery — and, moreover, you feel that they couldn’t even if they wanted to. Their lack of movie experience, their inherent awkwardness in front of a camera, doubles perfectly for the characters of a film that revels in those head-scratching, foot-swivelling moments of stumblebum perplexity that make up so much of our day yet are cutting-room floor fodder for almost every other director. Dollenmayer, all incredulous reactions and gumby arms set akimbo, is allowed to imbue Marnie with a beautifully multidimensional neurosis, remarkably different from the contempt and distrust with which studio romantic comedies treat their leading ladies, often positing that women’s social anxieties are inherently dysfunctional (see almost any Meg Ryan or Julia Roberts film).
Dollenmayer’s skill only reveals itself bit by bit: introduced at her most awkward moment (as most characters are here), lightly buzzed with alcohol and nearly getting an ill-conceived tattoo (“I should tell you I’m a little bit drunk,” she tells the body artist), Marnie then proceeds to become simultaneously complex and lovably undemanding. We’re left to browse through a parade of possible suitors for those traits that would complement her sheepish allure. Bujalski (who also gives the film’s most memorable and sincere performance as a temp co-worker smitten with Marnie) provides his protagonist with light embarrassments yet never humiliates or exploits her vulnerability.
The friend of a friend at that party in Brooklyn you went to last weekend who was perhaps a little out of his/her element yet made a really great first impression — this is how “Funny Ha Ha” functions. “What more do you want from life?” one character tremulously asks when he so desperately wishes to share his happiness with another whose mood has turned suddenly drear. It’s this radiantly difficult push-and-pull between people, this tenuous attempt at connection that marks Bujalski’s worldview as one to cherish. It’s not Bujalski’s doing that these days in cinema simplicity means so very much, but he clearly has a lot to teach other contemporary filmmakers about what their camera can capture, if they choose to point it in the right direction.
[Michael Koresky is co-founder and editor of Reverse Shot, as well as the assistant editor and frequent contributor of Film Comment.]
By Nick Pinkerton
How to explain the polite critical notices for “Funny Ha Ha,” 27-year old Harvard grad Andrew Bujalski’s misleadingly named, sub-competent debut feature? Certainly it speaks more to a gaping lack of modest, character-driven American indies than to the virtues of the film itself, an excruciatingly limpid affair that’s as slovenly as a laundry day outfit, and which in no detectable way outshines most of the senior-year produce of the no-name Midwestern film school that I once attended.
Kate Dollenmayer plays aimless post-collegiate protagonist Marnie, and her drab, ill-postured screen presence suggesting a post sex-change Wiley Wiggins. Our half-heartedly boozing heroine makes the Boston house-party scene and moves between unengaging jobs, all the while pining after her friend Alex. The movie’s a mess of mumbling crutch words and flat, chemistry-free dialogues, and watching it I felt like barking the same heckle that tempts me when watching some gutless, blandiose indie rockers slumping over their guitars and going through the motions: “Try harder!” Do you honestly mean to tell me nobody involved in this production could dredge up a tripod?
All of this is not to say that there’s no artistic paydirt in the quotidian territory that “Funny Ha Ha” focuses on: Harvey Pekar’s struck it more than once, the band Swearing at Motorists have written a great song about smoking a joint in a multiplex parking lot, and filmmakers including the Lumière Brothers, Warhol, and Maurice Pialat have indelibly adapted film language to the rhythms of the everyday. What makes those works vibrate is the way that they re-introduce us to the world, helping us to see the over-familiar with virginal eyes. And though “Funny Ha Ha” is proficient enough at superficially charting the commonplace, where it fails is in showing us how remarkable, or even interesting, that stuff can be.
[Nick Pinkerton is a Reverse Shot staff writer.]
By Jeff Reichert
Iam not one of these people. I’m not this inarticulate, this wayward, this socially awkward, noncommittal — am I? The world of “Funny Ha Ha”‘s twentysomethings feels far removed from the one I’m currently inhabiting. Yet there’s something about the characters who populate Andrew Bujalski’s debut feature that grows increasingly familiar as the patina of hyperreality surrounding their interactions wears away, finally leading to the recognition that yes, I have, at different times, been almost every one of these people. Probably still am. It’s a realization that may be limited to my contemporaries, but even though the film only occasionally (but how brilliantly in those occasions) delivers the “ha ha” of its title there’s a curious ethnographic sensibility at play.
So even if you’re say, 50, married, and employed, the uncluttered, intimate, yet slightly distanced fashion in which Bujalski views his 24-year-old, emotionally confused, underemployed protagonist allows his portrait to resonate well beyond the self-aggrandizing navel-gazing of many films aimed at and filled with whatever younger generation is currently in vogue. The kinds of folks who found their way into something like Cassavetes‘ “Shadows” should easily be able to muster similar enthusiasm for “Funny Ha Ha.” And though its central concerns may not bear the cultural weight of “Shadows”‘s racial issues, Bujalski treats his loose group of friends with a seriousness that suggests he believes there’s something worthwhile to be gleaned from observing rather than mocking them.
The cleverer among us may want to deny the common ground and call “Funny Ha Ha” out for bearing all the negative trappings of its age, but all one need do is take a step back and look at Marnie, Doug, Alex, etc. as their filmmaker does, wondering if what’s onscreen presents a fair or accurate portrait of these people, at this time in their lives. For better or worse, yeah, pretty much.
[Jeff Reichert is co-founder and editor of Reverse Shot. He is currently employed as Director of Marketing and Publicity for Magnolia Pictures.]