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Movie review: ‘Funny Ha Ha’

Ordinary moments become mesmerizing in ‘Funny Ha Ha’

2003, Austin American-Statesman

“Funny Ha Ha” basks in the crunch and the grain, the fuzzy dead air and lurching rhythms of ultra-independent, no-budget, grab-a-camera-and-shoot-your-friends moviemaking. It’s “Slacker” as an unrequited romance, maddeningly discursive yet tightly structured, dotted with characters in their early- to mid-20s whose stunning ineloquence makes you wonder if English was taught at the top-dollar universities from which they’ve recently graduated. The film’s title means nothing, though it provides an enticing clue to the dangling, non sequitur pleasures winding through this shapeless and utterly seductive charmer about quiet heartache.

Written and directed by newcomer Andrew Bujalski when he lived in Austin, “Funny Ha Ha” is being self-distributed by the filmmakers and has hit a nerve with critics, who have tossed out comparisons to Mike Leigh and John Cassavetes like rose bouquets. Visually and textually the influences make sense, but Bujalski’s movie doesn’t contain half the emotional energy of even those filmmakers’ lesser efforts. Its engineered bagginess gives it the pulse of reality — life does generally move at the speed of a shrug and sigh — yet all that air between the sparklingly mundane character exchanges doesn’t add as much as it should to the story’s destination.

That said, it all works wonderfully. “Funny Ha Ha” is a jagged bite of real life, shambling about with humor, sadness, boredom, excitement. It’s funny in the way it’s performed, not in the way it’s written; titters bloom from organic, straight-faced situations that are tweaked and inflected by the very good performers Bujalski has assembled. They make the material, if not sing, then whistle and hum.

As slacker girl Marnie, Kate Dollenmayer is the film’s reluctant “star,” an exceptionally offbeat leading lady who doesn’t lead so much as waft like a gawky cloud, gauzy and adrift. A boyish beanpole, tall with voluptuous facial features — she could be the lost twin sister of Wiley Wiggins — Dollenmayer is fascinating to watch not only for the incongruous pairing of her nerdy beauty and hangdog mien, but for the offhand details of gesture and expression she brings to the underwritten role. (All of the roles are drastically undernourished, but more on that later.)

Marnie is 23, fresh out of school with no job and no boyfriend. In fact, she doesn’t have much of anything except a car and an apartment that we see in glances. As a friend notes, she is “just boppin’ along” in life, taking a temp job here, going to a beer party there. Her only palpable problem, and the movie’s single dramatic thrust, is that her love for her good friend Alex (Christian Rudder, all clownish smiles) is stubbornly unrequited, especially since he has gone and got married. So she wanders through life weighed down by a lead heart that isn’t ready for the geeky overtures of a guy like Mitchell, whom Bujalski himself plays.

What’s remarkable is that nothing happens, and yet the movie entrances through its very uneventfulness and intuitive ease. With hardly an indulgent or false note, characters conduct tattered exchanges with stammering, imprecise language that erects barriers around truth as it tries to pierce them. This is the halting chatter of modern youth.

Or is it? Sometimes the arrested communication skills are overplayed, suggesting less improvisation and more writing was needed. Do close friends talk in such oblique spurts and nebulous sputters, barely capable of successive complete sentences and digested thoughts?

Another quibble: Despite great, coltish performances anchored tightly in truth, the characters are stuck in one-dimensional amber. We learn nothing about Marnie — what music she listens to, books she reads, movies she likes, her favorite food — and scarcely anything about her friends. Marnie is delightful if vexingly tentative. Her only passion, which is at best meek, is that for Alex. Her emotional output ranges from dim yearning to glum hurt, making her a rather vacant young woman.

And yet Dollenmayer brings an invisible depth to Marnie. We like her and root for her. She’s neat and we, like hapless Mitchell, wonder why she’s not mobbed by suitors. (Side note: Dollenmayer, an artist, did animation on “Waking Life.”)

“Funny Ha Ha” is a series of small moments bearing large verites: an awkwardly aborted makeout session; the incidental offering of a gummy bear; Marnie finding birth control pills in Alex’s room after he’s married.

By budgetary necessity, Bujalski captures all of it with a documentary vibe that can be squirmily voyeuristic. He shot on 16 mm film, not glossy digital video, so the sound is raw and textures are grungy. It’s perfectly fitting for a movie that has stripped away the frippery to show people doing that plainest, rawest of things: living.

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