Almost exactly 10 years ago, Andrew Bujalski was being interviewed by Indiewire contributor Michael Koresky when the filmmaker made an off-the-cuff remark that would haunt him. Shortly after the premiere of Bujalski’s sophomore feature “Mutual Appreciation” at the South by Southwest Film Festival, the same week that his debut “Funny Ha Ha” landed on DVD, Bujalski was asked about other contemporary filmmakers whose work — as Koresky put it — “harmonized” with his own. Bujalski recalled rumblings of a “movement” at SXSW, the same year that Joe Swanberg’s debut “Kissing on the Mouth” premiered and the Duplass brothers’ “The Puffy Chair” won an audience prize.
“My sound mixer named the movement ‘mumblecore,'” Bujalski said, “which is pretty catchy.”
In short order, Bujalski wouldn’t think so. Two years later, Joe Swanberg’s giddy comedy “Hannah Takes the Stairs” showed up at SXSW. The movie co-starred Bujalski and Mark Duplass opposite Greta Gerwig. The interweaving of filmmakers committed to ambling narratives about young Americans who babble about their interpersonal problems more than they do anything constructive with their lives stood out more than ever.
That summer, roughly two years after Bujalski first casually dropped the term, mumblecore was everywhere. New York’s IFC Center showcased films by Bujalski, Swanberg and fellow chronicler of young adult anxieties Aaron Katz with a series entitled “The New Talkies,” which prompted The New York Times to run a feature headlined, “A Generation Finds Its Mumble.” But did it?
While far from a premeditated movement, the perceptions associated with mumblecore stemmed from a real place: Several filmmakers less intrigued by the prospects of big budget studio filmmaking than naturalistic portraits of worlds they knew far better focused on similar topics; many of them worked within the confines of a tight-knit community, sharing resources and inspiration.
The chatty, neurotic loners found in Bujalski’s first two movies wouldn’t seem out of place in Swanberg’s emerging universe of romantically confused twentysomethings, which could easily encompass the stars of the Duplass brothers’ “The Puffy Chair” or Katz’s “Quiet City.” Intentionally or not, mumblecore was an apt umbrella term that nailed these filmmakers’ predilection for lo-fi portraits of perpetual mumblers; the mumbling didn’t just take the place of the plot — it was the plot.
Yet the organic roots of this tendency, aided by the advance of loose production methods associated with cheaper, digitally-enhanced filmmaking methods, meant that it resisted storytelling conventions in favor of unvarnished realism. The very possibility that any of these movies reflected a generic formula was paradoxical. How could anyone turn ordinary people living ordinary lives into cookie-cutter fodder for a newfangled genre?
Fortunately, pushback to the notion of mumblecore held back its potential to overwhelm any of its filmmakers’ careers, and they’ve continued to diversify. Case in point: Bujalski’s charming “Results,” opening this week, shows the director’s penchant for capturing the hilarious nuances of awkward human relations on a much more complex scale than his previous efforts. With the slick, polished look of a studio production, the movie features Guy Pearce and Kevin Corrigan as the hilarious rivals for the affections of workout instructor Cobie Smulders. Corrigan, as Danny — the pudgy, jaded heir to a fortune he has no clue how to use — provides the perfect foil for the straightfaced, chiseled Pearce as Trevor, the manager of the gym where Smulders’ character Kat works.
Bujalski’s plot veers in a number of different directions as it explores each of these figures’ uneasy mindsets while they attempt to find some modicum of satisfaction in their lives. At the same time, however, Bujalski maintains a clearly defined arc from start to finish: the longing that each character feels and their ongoing incapacity to express as much.
While Pearce’s character prides himself on his gym’s capacity to improve one’s self-worth, he battles his own issues with self-esteem while keeping his insecurities private; Corrigan’s affluent loner pays the gym to send Smulders’ character over just so he can have some company, not realizing that on some level he’s not the bitter, selfish figure he attempts to play. Kat just wants some semblance of balance in her life. These interlocking priorities shift around with a series of comedically inspired showdowns that don’t exactly go anywhere big, but that’s part of the point. The big takeaway of “Results” is that the whole idea of expecting clear-cut results from anything in life is a misnomer.
That cogent theme, realized with such delicately entertaining tropes, shows Bujalski’s growth as a filmmaker. Though not as bizarrely compelling as his wacky period comedy “Computer Chess,” a black-and-white chronicle of an 80’s-era computer conference, nor as enjoyably anarchic as “Funny Ha Ha,” on some level “Results” consolidates Bujalski’s appeal while amplifying its potential to speak to broader sensibilities. This isn’t mumblecore; it’s an Andrew Bujalski movie.
So it goes for the other directors once lumped into this non-movement. Swanberg has signed on to write a studio project, and continues to churn out mostly lightweight comedies with greater clarity and refined performances. The Duplass brothers have diversified by translating their interest in goofy anti-heroes to the television arena with “Togetherness.” Katz’s most recent movie, the endearing Icelandic road comedy “Land Ho!,” focused on a pair of would-be retirees at least three times as old as the average “mumblecore” hero. Can we stop using that term now?
While it might strike some as counterintuitive to call for a moratorium on “mumblecore” even as such a decree brings further attention to the term, it should be noted that the concept of mumblecore persists in the ongoing perception of American independent film to the detriment of its continuing diversification. Younger filmmakers as far-reaching as Nathan Silver, Josephine Decker and Matias Piñero have been described in terms of their mumblecore sensibilities, though each of them have displayed wildly different cinematic tendencies in their fast-growing bodies of work. The shadow of mumblecore already weighs down heavily enough on Bujalski and his peers; what’s worse is the possibility that its reductive powers could swell to newcomers as well.
If audiences are indeed going to see the movie, not the movement, “Results” is a pretty good place to start. Then work backwards. The playful ensemble scopes of “Computer Chess” and “Mutual Appreciation” demonstrate the sheer scope of Bujalski’s ability to toy with miscommunication. “Beeswax,” on the other hand, shows his tender side.
In short, Bujalski’s filmography deserves a second look devoid of any exterior noise from the conditions surrounding its creation. Whether or not there was ever some kind of movement, there were certainly plenty of great movies associated with it.