You've sat on it. You've slept in it. You've hauled it up stairs and squeezed, twisted and cajoled it through impossibly tight doorways. It's that overstuffed recliner that male relatives refuse to vacate even after the football game is long over or the Thanksgiving pie has been served. Its hideous upholstery of fraying plaid fabric or cracked, peeling Naugahyde belie its revered place in the home. It's "The Puffy Chair," and nearly every family has had one.
Not to be confused with "Seinfeld's" puffy shirt, "Chair" is a relationship road movie from the filmmaking brothers Duplass. Jay directs, Mark produces and stars, and together they've written a pointed and nicely observed screenplay that guides us on an often funny journey through familiar terrain made fresh by their off-center sensibility and three fine performances.
Mark Duplass plays Josh, a New York musician transitioning into talent booking, who has bought a chair on EBay that resembles one the family once had and plans to give it to his father for his birthday. Josh is at a rough spot with his girlfriend, Emily (Kathryn Aselton), a beautiful, intelligent 26-year-old who loves him but wants him to make a commitment. To smooth over a squabble, Josh impulsively invites her along on what was to have been a solo road trip to retrieve the chair in Virginia and deliver it to Dad in Atlanta.
Driving by van, the pair stops to visit Josh's younger brother Rhett (Rhett Wilkins), a blissed-out neo-hippie with a House of David beard and hollow philosophy to burn. Envious of Josh and Emily's perceived adventure to collect the chair, he asks to come along, unaware of what he's getting himself into.
There's unresolved tension between Josh and Emily, and Rhett's presence doesn't help matters. The surprise that awaits them when they arrive in Virginia and forces them to spend the night in a small town makes things only stranger. Josh's annoyance at Rhett's eccentric behavior and the immaturity that prevents Josh from seeing what a catch Emily is eventually turn the trip into a disaster.
The Duplass' ability to accurately depict the rough edges that define relationships -- both romantic and familial -- is what elevates "Chair" above the prototypical indie drama absorbed in aimlessness and twentysomething angst. What feels like meandering in the moment builds to a genuine emotional attachment to the characters.
Aselton, in particular, registers a specificity in her reactions that works equally well with the comedy as the melodrama. Josh is a bit of a conniving jerk (and probably not worthy of Emily), but Duplass manages to hold our empathy, even when he answers her request to name what he loves about her by complimenting her on her breasts.
Much of the film's dialogue feels improvised, and there's a casualness to the pacing that recalls early Richard Linklater. "Chair" is one of those rare feature debuts that come out of Sundance (class of 2005) full of buzz and doesn't disappoint.
`The Puffy Chair'
MPAA rating: R for language.
A Roadside Attractions release. Director Jay Duplass. Producer Mark Duplass. Screenplay by Mark Duplass, Jay Duplass. Camera Jay Duplass. Editor Jay Deuby. Running time: 1 hour, 25 minutes.
At the Landmark Nuart, 11272 Santa Monica Blvd., West L.A. (310) 281-8223.