Funny Ha Ha’s charm sneaks up on you in the same flatfooted, backhanded way as its characters do. Grainy, not even prettily unpretty, and superficially inarticulate, it draws less directly on Cassavetes’ cinema verité than on early John Sayles films like Return of the Secaucus 7 (the 1980 inspiration for better-known, worse-for-wear The Big Chill).
Like Sayles’ early movies, which no doubt draw in turn on Cassavetes (at that, the entire genres of reality TV and Dogme 95 should be laying wreaths at his grave), Funny Ha Ha ambles along with less of an explicit agenda than with a set of circumstances, ones that 24-year-old unemployed Marnie (Waking Life animator Kate Dollenmayer) idly nudges with her long, unmanicured toe. In Secaucus 7 especially, Sayles succeeded admirably at making plausible sexual desire between characters who, though not repulsive, wouldn’t necessarily be considered attractive by audiences watching them. That’s a lost art, for sure; a lost ambition, even, in this era when “would you fuck her/him?” prevails as the most urgent casting question (Shrek aside). And it’s an art resurrected by director Andrew Bujalski, who has captured in Funny the bloodless exchanges of a certain breed of Greater Boston-based recent grads. But that’s where the comparison between Bujalski’s and Sayles’ characters, also New England-based, stops. For whereas the Secaucus guys wring their hands over ideological questions and the wisdom of their choices, Marnie and her loose network of friends are just starting to arrive at the idea that commitment of any kind is required in life — if only in terms of committing to a clear sentence.
In his review, A.O. Scott shows his old-school colors when he describes the film as “a generational statement.” The movie’s “statement,” a term that may be too strident for this mumbling venture, is at once much more universal and much more specific than that. Specifically, it’s about the type of middle-class, recent grads who proliferate Neutered England. Basically nice kids (in Boston, you’re called kid until you die) who’ve got no play.
The film looks as if it were shot back in a Slacker ‘90s, when boys and girls alike donned the androgyne uniform of unflattering jeans and ripped, unironic tee shirts, but that’d be Bostonian twentysomethings in their natural habitat in any era, alas. It’s hard to imagine how these kids will get around to procreation (or doing the things required for procreation) until you realize that they’re infinitely patient with each other as they’re all, at least, similarly socially retahded. They slouch; they’re post-ironic enough that they apologize endlessly if even a little presumptuousness creeps into their tone; they barely meet each other’s eyes; and though you suspect their alma maters weren’t community colleges, they’re hard-pressed to formulate a direct thought or request, especially if it trespasses into the world of emotions or, God forbid, carnality. (In an NPR interview, Bujalski acknowledges that all the ums, likes and you knows that his nonprofessional cast utter all like you know pretty much derive verbatim from the script).
In any other film, for example, Alex, Marnie’s unrequited love, would be the hopeless sadsack rather than the glib Lothario who dances (awkwardly) in the face of Marnie’s wistful affections. He’s got small, shifty eyes, wears white sneakers with his jeans, and mumbles rather than fumbles once he gets a girl out on her porch in the middle of the night. If you know what I mean. Watching all these characters stumble around their desires is as excruciating as watching your seventh grade math teacher (the one in a short-sleeved button-down and a pen protector) putting the mack on a girl.
But that’s the charm of the film. There isn’t a soundtrack. There are no clever pop culture references. There are no montages. There are no big showdowns. There’s nothing, in fact, to mitigate the excruciating self-consciousness of one’s 20s, which is typically aggrandized without measure in both American and European cinema alike. In Marnie’s features and body, for example, you can glimpse an inkling of a woman who may one day be beautiful, but right now is inchoate and hopelessly floppy, a female equivalent to Linklater’s Wiley Wiggins. When she applies for a position as a research assistant, the professor who interviews her seems less stodgy than self-assured, insouciant compared to Marnie and her crew’s fidgety self-consciousness. Rather than wrinkled, his features seem, well, defined. And they remind us how, for most of us in the real world (the cinema verité kind as opposed to the reality TV world), one’s 20s are actually years to fast-forward through as rapidly as possible. The weight of the world-as-oyster is actually fairly intolerable.
When watching this film at Cinema Village, I was sure it’d just look like shitty public access if seen on a TV (not that CV’s screens are much better). But when I got home, it was playing on the Sundance Channel, and I settled in with a surprising degree of pleasure to watch Marnie float through a sea of bad parties and awkward encounters one more time. It makes sense, though: A lot of Funny‘s appeal stems from its rejection of typical filmic devices; dramatic moments that would typically escalate into either slapstick or confrontation merely devolve. At one moment, for example, while Marnie is waiting for Alex in his bedroom, she happens upon some other girl’s birth control pills. She puts them away, then fiddles with his tiny wrench to an effect that is sadly, slowly funny.
Made back in 2003 and only now hitting theaters in cities like NYC, Funny Ha Ha has taken its sweet time to gain any momentum — also like its characters — but it has finally accrued the kind of critical accolades typically only awarded European film these days. And it has a sort of European feel, in its closeups and blurred edges. Even the film’s ending, obstensibly the resolution of the film’s only dramatic conflict, is swallowed rather than spat. A welcome restraint.