Even by no-budget indie standards, Funny Ha Ha is about as no-budget indie as it gets. Writer-director Andrew Bujalski opts for a shambling narrative that often feels improvised and has the sensibility of cinema verite. If the picture initially seems too unadorned for its own good -- it failed to earn a spot at the Sundance Film Festival back in 2002 -- it eventually wins you over with Bujalski's unflinching examination of twentysomethings adrift in a sea of ennui and indecision.
Our heroine is Marnie (Kate Dollenmayer), a 23-year-old Bostonian shuffling from job to job, day to day. The film opens with her intoxicated and visiting a tattoo artist. What kind of illustration does she want? asks the artist. The young woman hasn't thought about it; she knows only that she wants it wherever it will hurt the least. That anti-spirit, a weirdly cautious apathy, permeates the feckless post-collegiate crowd who dominate Funny Ha Ha.
Marnie is intelligent, funny and attractive, but she seems pathologically unable or unwilling to express herself, much less elect self-actualization. She pines for her friend Alex (Christian Rudder), a socially awkward quasi-jerk incapable of sending her anything but mixed signals. Meanwhile, Marnie spurns the clumsy advances of Mitchell (Bujalski), an overly adoring coworker. Her ambitions are limited to making a "things to do" list that includes such as items as "learn to play chess," "go without drinking one month" and the ever-popular "fitness initiative."
That's it for plot. The picture has a definite pace and flow, but Bujalski takes pains to eschew story contrivances. Reminiscent of John Cassavetes' work (the shadow of Cassavetes looms large here), Bujalski aims for a hyper-realism that doesn't fit tidily into a three-act structure. Marnie goes to work and hangs out with friends and stammers her way through conversations that don't go anywhere. Welcome to the real world.
Bujalski's familiarity with this peculiar social universe is so obviously authentic, it almost feels as if he has done little more than train his camera on his friends. But there is sharp satire here, too, and Funny Ha Ha nicely explores the finer points of generational gibberish. In one ill-advised moment, Marnie admits to her friends Rachel and Dave (Jennifer L. Schaper and Myles Paige) that she loves Alex, but Rachel helpfully amends Marnie's pronouncement: "You like Alex." When Mitchell asks Marnie if she would like to "go out" sometime, she rebuffs his invitation but -- never wanting to offend -- adds that she "would love to hang out." Inflections and word choices mean the difference between protection and vulnerability. "You've gotta play it cool," says Alex.
But the film's verite aesthetic can be exhausting. Shot in 16 millimeter and looking every frame of it, Funny Ha Ha occasionally teeters toward inept direction. And there are pitfalls to following characters reluctant to articulate their feelings and beliefs. Inexpressiveness isn't exactly a hallmark of compelling cinema. Sometimes we turn to art precisely so that we can experience people who are smarter, wittier and more incisive than what we can overhear at a Denny's.
Still, Dollenmayer's low-key performance is affecting, and Bujalski's understanding of these people is spot-on. Funny Ha Ha isn't quite as perceptive as his follow-up, Mutual Appreciation, but it is touching and coy -- and well worth seeing.
In full-frame 1.33:1, there is nothing to write home about here. Funny Ha Ha is stridently low-budget, replete with soft images and visible grain in darkly lit scenes. It's part of the film's quirky charm.
This dialogue-driven film doesn't need more than 2.0 Dolby audio, and that's what it gets.
You've got to give the DVD producers high marks for eclecticism, if nothing else. A commentary labeled "an outside perspective from a Russian scholar" is equal parts satire and quasi-seriousness. It's often funny stuff, but a little goes a long way.
Another interesting bit, albeit a throwaway, is a so-called radio play between Bujalski and a woman named Nancy. Essentially, it's a phone conversation. Take from that what you will.
Rounding out the supplementals are a theatrical trailer, portrait gallery by Lissa Patton Rudder, trailer gallery and previews of coming attractions.
Non-indie film buffs need not apply. But for those who like their movie offbeat and stripped-down, Andrew Bujalski's Funny Ha Ha is well worth checking out.