29 March 2007

uber-indie: Mutual Appreciation

MutualAppreciation1

starring: Justin Rice, Rachel Clift, Andrew Bujalski, Seung-Min Lee, and Bill Morrison
cinematography by: Matthias Grunsky
written and directed by: Andrew Bujalski
R/109 min/Boston, MA


Largely hailed as one of the no-budget triumphs of the 2006 film year, Andrew Bujalski's Mutual Appreciation (2006) found itself with a lofty score on Metacritic.com, a couple of appearances on critic's Top 10 lists, and the general consensus that Bujalski had fulfilled some of the promise of his debut, Funny Ha Ha (2002). Or, at very least he didn't squander it.

This, of course, sets the bar of expectations pretty high for someone approaching Bujalski's work for the first time (as I am), so it shouldn't be all that surprising to hear me say the film doesn't exactly live up to the hype. But, to be fair, that's more the fault of the hype than the film itself.

The story of Mutual Appreciation is something of a slice-of-life following Alan (Justin Rice), a musician recently moved from Boston to what I assume is New York City. His band has recently broken up over creative differences and it appears his relationship situation has followed a similar path. But he's newly energized--sort of--thanks to NYC and a couple of friends who share his artistic disposition.

It's the sort of film where everyone has some level of artistic involvement, even if they don't see themselves as being at all artistic.

Andrew Bujalski's Funny Ha Ha is generally credited with being one of the first entries in the mumblecore movement, which Bujalski refers to in the indieWIRE interview as "a bunch of performance-based films by young quasi-idealists." What this basically means is that the films are comfortable with raw dialogue and uncomfortable silences, the sort of thing that, you know, happens a lot in real life. The films feel improvised, when they are usually scripted (think of The Office as a network TV approved example of what the dialogue is like). In the case of Mutual Appreciation this results in a film that swings freely between being poignant, beautiful, funny, and...boring. Yes, boring.

There's a lot to like in Mutual Appreciation, a lot of fantastic moments, but there's also a lot of time spent on absolutely nothing, with little to no substance percolating below the surface. A lot of time where I found myself wondering how I could get my hair to look like Justin Rice's. It's never good when a film lets my mind wander that much.

Part of the problem was that at no time did I really find myself connecting with these character on anything other than a surface level. The film never really lets us get close enough to these people to give us a reason to empathize with them. And this shouldn't have been hard. I know these people. Hell, I am these people. But the best feeling I could muster was "gee, it sure seems like these are people I should like."

It took me awhile to figure it out, how bored and disinterested I found myself for long stretches. Then it hit me: the parts of the film that are least interesting almost universally involve the characters when they are pretty far past sobriety. What the film fails to realize is that two people "mumblecore-ing" is great...until they get drunk. One of the universal rules of alcohol is that drunk people are only interesting to other drunk people, unless they're doing wild and crazy stuff like dancing on tables. The designated driver is almost always the one annoyed by how inane his friends are being, how boring their conversations are. And that's the chief problem with Mutual Appreciation--at times it's a lot like being the designated driver. You're there because you feel compelled to be there, and more often than not you'll find yourself checking your watch once or twice before the night is over.

That doesn't mean there isn't a lot of value in the experience, though.

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There's all sorts of ways you can check out Mutual Appreciation, whether through Amazon.com or Netflix or any number of retailers. Or, you could just go to the official webpage where you can do all sorts of stuff, and even buy a Limited Edition poster.

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8 comments:

johanna said...

i wonder if that guy's supposed to look like Dustin Hoffman a la The Graduate

Anonymous said...

Here's the actual indiewire interview with Andrew when mumblecore came up.

iW: Are there other directors working today with sensibilities that you find harmonize with your own in their final product?

AB: I think that there are a bunch of us coming up now who have many of the same influences, and the same anti-influences, i.e. some of the crummier aspects of the indie scene that we'd all like to bury.

My new film, "Mutual Appreciation," premiered at South by Southwest, and there was some talk there of a "movement" just because there were a bunch of performance-based films by young quasi-idealists. My sound mixer, Eric Masunaga, named the movement "mumblecore," which is pretty catchy.

I quite liked those other films that I saw, but I think it's probably a little reductive and silly to actually group any of them together. And if it is a movement I'm sure I'll want to get out of it and do something else. Again, not much point in making films that other people have already made, unless you've got something new to bring to it.

lucas mcnelly said...

anonymous,

that full indieWire review is linked in the actual review.

Moviezzz said...

If you get a chance, try to see his first film FUNNY HA HA. I thought it was even better. And I think I liked MUTUAL APPRECIATION more than you did. At least it would have probably made my ten best.

The thing I liked about it, that could be a bit off-putting for some, was that scenes go on a couple beats after their natural ending. He doesn't cut for the movies, he cuts for the realism of the scene. Reminded me of Cassavettes in some ways.

He is a great example of the whole DIY filmmaking group. Two years ago, I bought a DVD-R copy of the film, direct from his website. (And, he is quite the excellent customer service person, as I got it the next day). Later, he was able to get an official theatrical release, and now it is on DVD.

I look forward to Bujalski's next.

lucas mcnelly said...

Jim,

i actually think i have Funny Ha Ha around here somewhere in a big pile of Netflix movies i haven't watched yet. i certainly do want to see it.

i really liked the editing thing you were talking about, but there were times (and this goes back to my main complaint) that i wished he would cut the scene already because it had so long ago gone past the point of contributing to the story, a little bit of "ok, we get it, can we please move on now?"

i really think there's a fantastic 90-95 minute film there

the thing is, i tried so very hard to like this film and give it a more positive review, probably too hard, actually, but i just couldn't.


it is pretty cool when people move up a step in the world, isn't it?

pacheco said...

I saw Funny Ha Ha some time back and I didn't like it at all, though I didn't hate it at all either. A few weeks ago I saw Hannah Takes the Stairs, which is a Joe Swanberg movie, but had Bujalski in it, and I was really impressed with his acting and participation in the film, so I now really look forward to getting Mutual Appreciation from Netflix.

The Sujewa said...

i liked Mutual App a lot, didn't like Funny Ha Ha at all. Like some other indie filmmakers (Jarmusch, Hartley) Bujalski's work is an acquired taste. But the good thing is, what he's doing is not very difficult to do (in both production & distribution) for people who are into writing dialogue driven movies (& also into self-distribution) - & it's getting some pretty awesome reviews from major publications, thus there is hope for many other new filmmakers, as far as getting good press from the likes of A.O. Scott, Nathan Lee, Manhola Dargis, etc. Of all the Mumblecore flicks i've seen (Kissing On The Mouth, LOL, Funny Ha Ha, Mutual Appreciation, Quiet City, The Puffy Chair) Mutual App is my second favorite (first being Puffy Chair - more happens in that movie, with some widely funny stuff like the guy who communes with lizards). Anyway, like Stranger Than Paradise has been doing for a couple of decades now, perhaps Mutual will make young filmmakers/would-be-filmmakers go "i can do that" & we might end up with some interesting movies like 5 - 10 years down the road :)

- Sujewa

lucas mcnelly said...

Sujewa,

I'm with you. What excites me most about Mutual Appreciation really has nothing to do with the film itself, but the reaction the film has gotten that should make it easier for other films to maximize their exposure.

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