Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Like a Bunny

I have been remiss in my duties readers. I like to think when a new trend or movement in cinema comes up I at least have a handle on it. I'll see one or two films to get a feel for it or do some research in its origins, or try to consider the context from which it sprang forth. However, in regards to the mumblecore movement which began a few years ago in 2002 I have been shamefully uninvolved and unconcerned. In taking the indie grunge aesthetics of the late 80's and early 90's (your Sex, Lies and Videotapes, your Reality Bites) with the bare-bones, "real" approach od Dogme 95, combined with a do-it-yourself spirit, the style has taken off in art houses. it has also begun to produce a number of crossover figures that are slowly but surely entering the mainstream (I'm thinking specifically of Mark Duplass who can now be seen weekly on FX's The League and Greta Gerwig who just showed up in House of the Devil and replaced Amy Adams in the forthcoming Greenberg with Ben Stiller).
Well if my first forray into this movement is indicative of the core emotional truths this style can dig into I will definitely be checking out more mumblecore. Lynne Shelton's Humpday plays sort of like an Apatow film stripped down to its barest elements. I mean this as a compliment for both sides. The difference being that in Shelton's film the emotional moments are pitched more toward verisimilitude as opposed to earnest sentiment. The film starts off as a sort of winking take-down of gay panic and beta males and then cannily evolves into a story about character's attempting to reveal their true selves and struggling with how time has changed them and whether its for better or worse. In most films this would be pretty gregarious, hand-wringing stuff but under Shelton's direction and the actors nimble and knowing performances it comes off as charming and frequently hilarious.
The film centers around Ben (Mark Duplass) who is settling in to being a 9 to 5 city planner and growing accustomed to his new marriage with Anne (Alycia Delmore). The couple is planning to have a baby and this would symbolically mark the transition into more mainstream domesticity for both of them. In a very revealing early moment the two are snuggling in bed, both clearly tired when one of the partners grudgingly admits that they're too tired for sex. The answer is not disappointment or insults, but relief from the other. Its such a refreshing turn of events for the viewer to see that the film is not going for obvious spins on this material. It'd be so easy to make Ben a barely getting by slacker, or turn Anne into a hen-pecking shrew, but the film has too many shaggy layers and too much vested in these characters.

The would-be normalcy of this couple is disrupted at 3 AM when out of nowhere comes Andrew (Blair Witch's Joshua Leonard), an old friend of Ben's that he's not seen in years. Ben is a sort of aimless wanderer, he's still living like he's an idealized artist type in his twenties and the film bounces back and forth between looking at his lifestyle with equal parts envy and derision. It nicely echoes Ben's own feelings towards his friend. Anne is frustrated by Andrew's intrusion in their life and how Andrew's presence effects Mark, but she never descends into shrewish caricature, she's willing to give Andrew a chance and never hurls any marriage ending ultimatums at Ben. She also has wonderful moment where Ben expresses his desire to not be the buttoned-down married type that he's become and her retort is phenomenal. Its as though someone took Leslie Mann's rant to Paul Rudd in Knocked Up and dug several miles deeper.

The central dramatic question the film hinges on comes at a moment when at a boho party Ben is dragged to by Andrew and during a discussion of real-lifer film -fest Humpday, the two suggest making a film where they, as two straight friends, will have gay sex. What ensues goes in a number of thought-provoking directions. You could spin out a couple different interesting films from this premise, but I don't think any of them could be described as subtle. Shelton, however, never allows this question to be a one-joke premise. I wouldn't dream of spoiling what the film turns into after the two decide to make the film or how the news is broken to Anne. I will say though that a lot of thought went into the exchanges and character reactions to the implications of these two friends in this situation. For some this may come off as navel gazing, but I would argue that there is gold in them thar navel.

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