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'Hannah' & her misters

A vague young thing has problems sorting through the men in her life. It's a cruel, cruel summer.

September 28, 2007|Carina Chocano | Times Staff Writer

The characters in Joe Swanberg's "Hannah Takes the Stairs" aren't inarticulate, exactly, although they rarely manage to express an emotion, formulate a thought or even complete a sentence. They are self-conscious in a way that only a generation obsessed with its own representation can be, saddled as they are with an anxiety of influence that seems to compound by the second.

Shot on digital video and group-improvised from a loose outline by Swanberg, "Hannah Takes the Stairs" is the latest addition to the growing canon of DIY, twentysomething angst indies grouped under the category of mumblecore. Like Andrew Bujalski's "Funny Ha Ha" and "Mutual Appreciation," and the Duplass brothers' "The Puffy Chair," "Hannah" places itself squarely within this tradition by casting both Bujalski and Mark Duplass in the film, which also features Kent Osborne, whose film "Dropping Out" premiered at Sundance in 2000, and Ry Russo-Young, whose "Orphans" won a special jury award at the SXSW festival earlier this year.

The gang's all here, as are their usual concerns, explored with all the self-conscious, self-censoring agony of youth in the post-slacker age. At the center of what little action there is, is Hannah (Greta Gerwig), an aspiring playwright who has landed a writing job on a show so vague and apparently directionless that the guy in charge (Todd Rohal) spends most of his time checking e-mail, updating his blog and ordering lunch. Hannah is dating Mike (Duplass), a laid-back musician who has quit his job and stopped playing music in an effort to determine what makes him happy. Far from taking the form of a quest, this pursuit leaves him free to do nothing but go to the beach and show up unannounced at Hannah's office, which frustrates Hannah -- or, rather, makes her express frustration in a jokey, disengaged way.

She is much more taken -- or at least more impressed -- with her more ambitious co-worker Paul (Bujalski), though his ambitions seem hardly more concrete than Mike's aimlessness. After breaking up with Mike in the most passive and indirect way she can muster ("I don't think you can touch me anymore"), she edges into a relationship with Paul. At the moment, however, Paul is only in love with himself (he's a blogger with a book deal), and Hannah quickly gets tired of his neglect. Turning her attention to the nearest guy in line, she shifts her sights to Paul's friend and their fellow co-worker, Matt (Osborne), who manages to find the time to fool around with magnetic marbles and join Hannah for a trumpet duet in the bathtub.

It's probably safe to say that very few people born in the last four or five decades haven't, at 25, felt like his or her life should be made into a movie, or is just like a movie, even (or maybe especially) at its most aimless and uneventful. If the impulse has been around for a while, the means to actualize it have never been greater. This is partly because technology has made the means of production so readily available to so many, just as distribution channels have expanded and the range and speed of word-of-mouth promotion exponentially increased. But it's also because growing up postmodern means that even the most personal, intimate moments seem to hover at a safe remove, having been filtered through thousands of representations of similar moments before they are even experienced. It's hard enough to figure out who you are, but harder still under these hothouse conditions.

"Hannah," which was shot over a summer in Chicago with all the participants living together in an apartment, perfectly encapsulates the slow-motion, frustrated feeling of early adulthood, when longing and inchoate desire easily outnumber actual transformative events and achievements. After watching "Hannah," it feels inaccurate to describe what passes between the characters as love, or even like. And the work environment is so detached, laid-back and unproductive that it feels more like baby hipster wish-fulfillment than an accurate portrayal of reality. And yet there's something about the heat, the boredom and the uncertainty that feels deadly familiar. In capturing it, Swanberg has also managed to convey the feeling more, perhaps, than is enjoyable.

But there's something to be said for cinema this perversely naturalistic. The young strivers in "Hannah Takes the Stairs" have nothing in common with the depictions of young urban bohemia that come out of Hollywood, and as an emotional snapshot of a narrow demographic during a brief life phase, it's really quite evocative.

"Hannah" isn't quite as honest with itself as are Bujalski's two films, maybe because there's something bulletproof about Gerwig's charisma and magnetism. Every 25-year-old may feel like her life is a movie, but not everyone knows she's a star. It's this quality in Gerwig that makes up for the film's lack of rigor (a script might have helped, after all), but it's also what keeps her at a remove. More than once, Hannah sheds a few crocodile tears for her jilted boyfriends, but her carelessness has no repercussions beyond two brief, uncomfortable scenes.

For a movie so vested in youthful verisimilitude, it's conspicuously lacking in misery.


"Hannah Takes the Stairs." MPAA rating: Not rated (Times guidelines: nudity). Running time: 1 hour, 24 minutes. Laemmle's Sunset 5, 8000 Sunset Blvd., West Hollywood (323) 848-3500; also available via On Demand, check local listings.

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