Funny Ha Ha

(USA - 2002)

by Mike Lorefice

Cast: Kate Dollenmayer, Christian Rudder, Andrew Bujalski, Myles Paige, Jennifer L. Schaper, Lissa Patton Rudder
Genre: Drama/Comedy
Director: Andrew Bujalski
Screenplay: Andrew Bujalski
Cinematography: Matthias Grunsky
Composer: Bishop Allen

“I’m just wandering the earth, you know?” - Marnie

Movies generally serve up the fairytale version of the familiar, at best building upon the movie cliches of the one in a million stories that supplant anything that might resemble the lives of the actual audience members. There are seemingly 10 billion that deal with post-grad life, the transition from having everything planned and arranged by your elders to the challenge of newly earned freedom and responsibility. Most adults are smart enough to know that while the hopeful and assuring may be well meaning, there’s actually very little one can take from these flicks as they probably won’t be earning a seven figure salary within a year of graduation and the fantasy mate who has everything they could possibly ask for except them isn’t likely to move in across the street.

Life is plotless, and I’d rather watch people I can relate to and identify with than partake in another predictable dot to dot where the hero will invariably wind up with the greatest job and the girl who is supposed to be the best looking. A mature view of the trials and tribulations of the director and his friends, which are similar to those who didn’t have a job and spouse waiting for them when they graduated, Funny Ha Ha tries to keep it real, doing such a perceptive job of dealing with the familiar you feel as though you know every person with a notable role.

The main character Marnie (Kate Dollenmayer) is attractive and intelligent enough to intermingle with any group, but since she lacks both a boyfriend and a career she’s always a fringe dweller, forced to navigate between what she wants but can’t have and what she doesn’t want but can have. Marnie knows her fate before she even tries something, and realizes that trying will only pour salt on her open wounds, yet not trying will only continue her current misery.

Mitchell (director Andrew Bujalski), a temp Marnie works with for a little while, is a graceless self-effacing loser who can be relied upon to make every situation as awkward and uncomfortable as possible, pushing his “luck” until his inevitable defeat. Alex (Christian Rudder, a member of the indie rock band Bishop Allen who composed Funny Ha Ha’s score) is a cool jokester who is also inexplicable, impetuous, and immature. Never knowing what he wants, he lives life similar to his gags, doing whatever pops into his head at the moment. He seemingly brags about the girl he’s with and flirts with her because he’s in between pranks and doesn’t know what else to say. Dave (Myles Paige, a photography teacher at Bujalski’s alma mater Harvard) is the happy go lucky party animal who has no idea how foolish he comes off because he drinks his filter away. He likes everyone and always looks on the bright side of life to the point he tries to cheer Marnie up by convincing her Anthony’s Hummus will solve all her problems. Finally, there’s Alex’s sister Susan (Lissa Patton Rudder), the person who can’t keep anything you tell them confidential and encourages you to get together with someone she should know isn’t actually interested.

Funny Ha Ha is so recognizable and such a respectful and unpretentious evocation of early 20’s life you could believe it’s a documentary. It’s reminiscent of Eric Rohmer in that while the characters are imperfect and often foolish, there’s no contempt or maliciousness toward them, no shock imbued upon their actions. Universal situations are depicted with class, so while there’s pain and sadness in addition to the usual fun and happiness, there’s no escape from it through the usual mocking of others. Though the character’s folly is capable of comic relief, laughing at them doesn’t prove your superiority. In fact, half the reason you laugh is it reminds you of the ineptness and imprudence of people you know, including yourself.

The huge difference between Rohmer and Bujalski is the dialogue itself. Rohmer is the poet of the cinema, delivering conversation similar to a great novelist whose prose well exceeds the capability of his characters, which is a lot of what makes it so lively, evocative, and intelligent. On the other hand, Bujalski, the father of the mumblecore movement, uses natural speech rhythms and patterns, meaningless stumbled over babble that purposely fails to clearly or concisely say anything worthwhile. Dealing in stammering everyday dialogue, Bujalski’s gawky anti-romance consistently features characters speaking over one another as they talk around their goals and generally ramble on about nothing in particular. In contrast to the usual bogus pop philosophy that at least provides us with enough of an outlook to constantly disagree with, the patheticness of Funny Ha Ha’s small talk, which rarely extends beyond a tossed out subject, helps us understand that we are supposed to look elsewhere for the films meaning. Too many talky movies are more or less plays committed to film, but Funny Ha Ha wouldn’t work at all if the audience listened to the dialogue from a distance, as the significance lies beneath the surface in what the characters would convey if they had the language and courage to do so.

Their negotiation is very defense, with their directionless state contributing not only to the apologetic tone, but also to the general imprecision of their sentences. Even when the characters are sober they stumble a crooked line. Neither sure of themselves nor established, they have become artisans of deflection and redirection. As they never get anywhere by simply shifting to small talk to avoid talking about their own inadequacies, they are also passive-aggressive. The problem is, to make some sort of advance they must find a way to ask or allude to information their equally lost partner probably won’t want to answer. Since neither party can come right out and say anything, there are all sorts of traps along the way and everything becomes a tentative navigation through the uneasy waters of possibly offending the person they are conversing with, the ever increasing anxiety always a threat to help sink them.

The intensity of the conversations is theoretically hidden by the conventional politeness, but every question or remark can be taken the wrong way if the other person is so inclined. Whether with a close friend or new acquaintance, when you know your feelings differ from the person you are talking to or you simply can’t match your words with your feelings, every conversation becomes tenuous. Much of the comedy is derived from the trap of polite speak, which forces the character who has just been hurt or rejected to fall back on propriety and utter some ironic line where they apologize to the offender.

Everything from Funny Ha Ha’s characters to the lack of filmmaking style (though it has warmer colors and a smoother more glowing texture due to being shot on film rather than the DV of most predescessors) are aimed to ground us in the ordinary. Bujalski and director of photography Matthias Grunsky based the unobtrusive visual style on John Cassavetes’ Faces, creating the best possible environment for the actors by employing minimal lighting and working with the smallest possible crew, whose goal was to stay out of the way. Both directors make cheap personal films, casting their friends in roles well suited to them and aiming for naturalistic performances that realistically capture life’s difficulties, which naturally center upon human relationships.

The biggest asset of Funny Ha Ha is the compulsively watchable performance of Kate Dollenmayer, a real natural who probably delivers the best non-professional performance since Emmanuel Schotte in L’Humanite. Dollenmayer is charming and cute, lively and melancholy, awkward and vulnerable, innocent but impure. One of the three friends who moved to Austin, Texas with Bujalski after he graduated from Harvard, where she worked as an animator Richard Linklater’s great Waking Life, Dollenmayer is the perfect actress for a movie that’s all subtext because she conveys so much with her body. The film lies in her head bobs and tilts, slouches and shrugs, brow wrinkles, nervous bored and impatient movements.

There’s no violence or even voice raising in Funny Ha Ha, but there are deep inner wounds. Marnie learns that her close friend Alex, who she’s been in love with for a long time, has finally broken up with Nina (Vanessa Bertozzi) from other friends, as he didn’t bother to tell her when they hung out together the day before. Later, she drops in on him at his office only to have his co-workers inform her Alex & Nina are not only back together, but married! Feelings of frustration and powerlessness are the motifs of Marnie’s life because whether its getting fired while asking for a raise or getting turned down when finally telling Alex how she feels about him, any initiative on the slacker’s part invariably backfires.

Marnie wanders through life because its easier, giving a thought to everything including being a nun. She’s the kind of person who has time to create lists of the things she should do to pass the time – spend more time outside and learn to play chess – complete with neat little boxes to be checked off. Even after she gives up drinking, she can’t convey her points, as her feelings and emotions are difficult enough for her to understand, much less allude to through the rituals of safe conversations.

Fear of failure and rejection trumps all, and Bujalski always finds a way to incorporate the most awkward, cringe inducing moments, which are painful for the recollections they conjure in our mind. A typical movie would be content to make us feel sorry for Marnie, but we can’t fail to recognize that she treats Mitchell fairly similarly to the way Alex treats her. Bujalski shows the world as a totem pole where we always want someone above us to be our partner, and thus are invariably miserable because, at best, they’ll only be our friend. Thought he refuses to provide false hope, he also eschews the usual cynicism. Bujalski is insightful without being obvious, far more concerned with asking the right questions than providing answers. In fact, he denies the conclusion to most scenes and ideas, expecting the audience to consider what the characters are really trying to convey and realize their lives extend well beyond the 90 minutes he’s able to commit to film.

Bujalski’s observation is acute, but while there are many non-manufactured high points, to an extent it also functions by giving the audience no refuge, by trapping us in the frustration of uninteresting low paying employment by day and lonely nights even if spent with a group of people who all laboring to come out with a whole lotta nothing. Dave will try to convince everyone they had a great time even though the great challenge of human interaction doesn’t deliver stimulation on any level or any great reward. The appeal of Alex is he’ll at least make you laugh, even if begrudgingly, pulling stunts such as pretending to explode his eyeball with a fork. The abrupt ending reveals a change in Marnie’s perception of the immature flirt that perhaps will help her move on or at deal with the type of relationship she can have with him in the future.



* Copyright 2008 - Raging Bull Movie Reviews *