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A tender look at the terrible 20s

"Funny Ha Ha," about a woman's entry into adulthood, is humorous and stealthily affecting.

June 03, 2005|Carina Chocano | Times Staff Writer

You wouldn't know it from watching Hollywood movies in which young people ace glamour jobs while inspiring articulate dreamboats to declare their love in public, but as David Rakoff once wrote, "Youth isn't wasted on the young. It is perpetrated on the young." Exactly how is brilliantly captured by Andrew Bujalski in his debut feature, "Funny Ha Ha," a deceptively simple portrait of a young woman trying to survive her dispiriting entry into adulthood.

Twenty-three-year-old Marnie (Kate Dollenmayer) is a recent graduate living the post-collegiate life in Boston, where many of her friends have remained (presumably in the very same apartments that housed them through school) to slog through a series of entry-level jobs and baffling relationships. Shot on 16-millimeter film in a loose verite style, the film lopes and shrugs alongside Marnie as she pines for her weaselly, passive-aggressive friend Alex (Christian Rudder); looks for a new job after getting fired from her old one for asking for a raise; and reluctantly consents to a friendship with Mitchell (Bujalski), whose mad crush she doesn't reciprocate.

Its naturalistic, low-budget style recalls Richard Linklater's "Slacker," but "Funny Ha Ha" is more interested in the mundane details of daily existence than in the fringe-dwelling exoticism of garrulous philosopher-geeks, eccentric conspiracy buffs and motor-mouthed trivia addicts. Marnie has no career plans to speak of, nor is she trying to create an "alternative" life for herself. Mainly, she's staying afloat and trying to connect with others who are equally lost.

Early in the film, Marnie runs into her friends Rachel (Jennifer L. Schaper) and Dave (Myles Paige), a couple she admires mainly for their ability to sustain a relationship. They talk her into joining them for dinner with "Travis' girlfriend's engineering student friends," and she goes along for the ride -- archly noting that "it will be a spontaneous adventure, like my life." At the dinner, which turns out to be exactly as much fun as it sounds, Marnie learns that Alex has broken up with his girlfriend, Nina (Vanessa Bertozzi). She confesses that she's in love with him, then thinks better of it and adds, "Well, not in love...." Rachel helps her out, "You like Alex." That's more like it.

In creating the character Alex, Bujalski has nailed the mid-20s torture engine in all his vague, mind-messing, infuriating glory. A skinny, goofy kid whose charisma sets him apart from the dorks, spazzes and aloof, polo-wearing jocks who make up the bulk of Marnie's male acquaintances, Alex is friendly on the outside but capable of inflicting outrageous damage. He is incapable of sending a message that isn't mixed and is forever indulging in the unnerving habit of infusing every interaction with a jittery sarcasm that kills sincerity on contact. After his sister Susan (Lissa Patton Rudder) tells Alex that she encouraged Marnie to act on her feelings, he calls to discourage her in the vaguest, most open-ended way possible, ending the conversation at its most confusing with the promise to "talk more about it later."

At a party a few days later, Marnie meets Wyatt (Marshall Lewy), the guy from the dinner, at a party, and fills a lull in an already awkward conversation with a tentative kiss. Wyatt goes along for a moment, then pulls away, saying, "I'm sorry, I don't know."

For those not versed in the poetics of inarticulateness, "I don't know" means "I know but I don't want to say to your face," which along with "I mean" and "it's like," is one of the most useful tools in mid-conversation conversation avoidance. Despite being educated and intelligent, Marnie and her friends are strategically inarticulate when it comes to expressing their emotions or desires. Revelation makes one vulnerable, so they try as much as possible to limit their exchanges to these carefully conscribed phrases, which perfectly express the uncertainty, thwarted intentions and the inability to describe the resultant emotional state in three vague phrases that make up the dominant themes of their lives.

By simply re-creating what he has observed, Bujalski has created a tender, funny and stealthily affecting portrait of youthful powerlessness and frustration. Marnie is constantly trying to take control of her life, she just doesn't have the means to do it. In a quietly funny and tender scene, after running into Alex and Nina at the supermarket, she sits on the steps of the library compiling a "to do" list for herself that includes such goals as, "Fitness initiative!!," "Make friends with Jackie," "Spend more time outside," and "Go without drinking for one month."

She makes desultory stabs in these general directions, with mixed results, but her big moment comes at the end, when she sees a chance and doesn't take it. It's a slight, almost imperceptible moment, and the movie ends abruptly right afterward, as if slamming a door. It takes a minute to realize you know all you need to know. She's going to be fine.

*

Funny Ha Ha

MPAA rating: Not rated

Times guidelines: Mild language

Goodbye Cruel Releasing presents. Director Andrew Bujalski. Producer Ethan Vogt. Screenplay by Andrew Bujalski. Director of photography Matthias Grunsky. Editor Andrew Bujalski. Featuring music by the Crack Pipes, Dead Cat Bounce, Matty & Mossy. Running time: 1 hour, 30 minutes. Selected theaters.

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