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Mark and Jay Duplass scored a solid indie hit a few years ago with their self-financed, self-made road-trip rom com The Puffy Chair, and though I can't fault them for wanting to up their game while still staying true to their DIY roots, their second effort, Baghead, ends up being too conflicted for its own good.
Baghead begins as self-parody of the indie film circuit before quickly shifting gears into another Duplass Bros.' relationship picture. The filmmakers would probably be fine if they stopped there, but then they shift yet again, this time trying for a horror flick a la The Blair Witch Project or Return to Loch Ness. With the third component in place, the guys spend the rest of Baghead trying to give equal time to all of these things, and end up becoming too much of everything while still having nothing new or relevant to say about anything.
After four actor friends watch the embarrassingly arty directorial debut of a passing acquaintance, they decide to retreat to a cabin in the woods to write their own movie that they can shoot on DV as a showcase for their talents. Once there, however, the quartet ends up engaging in more drinking and flirting than they do writing. Square-jawed Matt (Ross Partridge) and comedy sidekick Chad (Steve Zissis) have been friends forever, and though Matt has his hands full with his on-again-off-again girlfriend Catherine (Elise Muller), he is attracting the attention of Michelle (Greta Gerwig), whom Chad is desperately in love with despite her insistence that they are just friends.
That alone would be enough for one movie to have to deal with, but later that night Michelle wakes up with the urgent need to vomit. When she goes outside to do her business, she sees a man in the woods wearing a bag over her head. Frightened, she runs back inside, and when she wakes up the next morning, she isn't sure if what she saw was real or a dream. Matt thinks it's the gold they need for their feature, however, and the mixed-up crew decides to carry on with the writing, the flirting, and the debates over whether the reappearing Baghead is real or simply one of them playing a prank.
The Duplass Brothers have shot Baghead on digital video, and they maintain the handheld style that you either love, hate, or are forced out of the decision-making process by motion sickness. The team from The Puffy Chair is preserved on Baghead, with the Brothers sharing writing and directing chores, while Jay Duplass also acts as the cinematographer and Jay Deuby handles editing. Together, they manage to make a coherent film using intimate, on-the-fly shooting techniques and what at least looks like an improvisational style. The pieces are all there to keep the plot together, but at a slim 84 minutes, Baghead is missing that certain extra something to push it over the edge. There is no loving it, there is no hating it, merely ambivalence. I wasn't even sure if what I was watching was supposed to be a comedy or if I should take it completely seriously. The chips fall where they may on either side of the laugh lines, meaning that a lot of the points that are meant to be scary are actually realistically comical. Rather than tying the satire together, this just makes Baghead all the more perplexing.
Taking a step back and looking at what works in Baghead, the Duplass boys should note that their strength would appear to be in relationship stories, even if they don't want to admit it. Their actors deserve a lot of credit for managing to navigate all of the movie's incongruities and still keep the truth of their connections intact right up until the implausible and rushed final scene. My guess is that at this point, the Brothers feared that if they went ahead and just made another indie relationship movie, audiences would think that was all they were really capable of. Yet, at the same time, they hedged their bets to avoid alienating the fanbase they'd already garnered. As a result of not going all the way in stepping outside of that safe zone, their own fears were realized, and they've pigeonholed themselves. If they ever want to get out that trap, they should take advice from all the relationship pictures that have preceded them and learn to commit.
Because no one ever wants to date the guys who can't make up their minds.
Jamie S. Rich is a novelist and comic book writer. He is best known for his collaborations with Joelle Jones, including the hardboiled crime comic book You Have Killed Me, the challenging romance 12 Reasons Why I Love Her, and the 2007 prose novel Have You Seen the Horizon Lately?, for which Jones did the cover. All three were published by Oni Press. His most recent projects include the futuristic romance A Boy and a Girl with Natalie Nourigat; Archer Coe and the Thousand Natural Shocks, a loopy crime tale drawn by Dan Christensen; and the horror miniseries Madame Frankenstein, a collaboration with Megan Levens. Follow Rich's blog at Confessions123.com.