Expert film discussion from completely unqualified people


November 27, 2014


The Ugly Club vs Mumblecore

Rob really likes Joe Swanburg movies and can't explain why.

"I have just seen Breathless. From now on, continuity shots are out." 
- Henri Decoin

Those of you familiar with Mumblecore know it as a sub-genre of micro-budget films that employ naturalistic, improvised dialogue and real settings in order to tell the self-indulgent stories of pretentious white people. These light and airy comedies tend to meander and stutter, seemingly making themselves up as they go along. They're usually some kind of family or relationship drama: Guy Likes Girl, Middle Sister Feels Out of Place, Young Person with New College Degree is Apathetic. It's a low-plot heavy-dialogue type deal. Characters tend to be vague sketches and scenes are seemingly cut together at random. If all these sound like bad things, I would agree. I've already expressed my frustration with Frances Ha and Tiny Furniture for expecting me to relate to entitled twenty-somethings whose key personal dramas include "Which party is closest to Whole Foods?" or "Is Daft Punk overrated?" Jeff Who Lives at Home and Safety Not Guaranteed are clumsy, awkward, and bore me to tears. They're over-produced and over-written. Too many quirky confession scenes in empty bathtubs. It's Hollywood Indie. Fake tension. Engineered sympathy for unsympathetic characters. The only Mumblecore film I can sell with full mirth is Joe Swanburg's Drinking Buddies. It's a bit long and not every scene works, but it's got a good cast and an interesting dynamic. With that in mind, I checked out his new film, Happy Christmas. Ladies and gentlemen, Mr. Swanburg has led me to my Mumblecore happy place.

His films are about energy and naturalism. His shooting style is bland but purposeful. Turn the camera on and see what you get. Keep it simple. I'm normally a stickler for structure and story causality, but aimlessness can be a virtue when executed correctly. His peers have a tendency to jump cut around important plot elements with affected irony, but Mr. Swanburg somehow manages distinct cohesion and a good pace. He also seems to understand his actors and when and how to let them improvise. The stories themselves are honest and human. He doesn't saddle his protagonists with lofty goals or irredeemable flaws. There are no life-altering revelations or last-minute confessions. Most of his endings lack catharsis. I can't reiterate it enough: I should hate this, but I don't.

Take Happy Christmas: Anna Kendrick stars as Jenny, a listless twenty-something who moves in with her brother Jeff (Swanburg) and his wife Kelly (Melanie Lynskey). She's apparently gone through a breakup and Jeff has suggested that she come live with them to help raise their son. I think. Again, it's light on the exposition. We see Jenny try to adjust to basement living and drink too much during a night out with Carson (Lena Dunham). She was supposed to babysit for Jenny the next morning, but she's so hung over that they're forced to bring in hipster hunk Kevin (Mark Webber). He's...a friend, I think? Regardless, he and Jenny get to the makeouts pretty soon and she begins a steady pogo between responsibility and self-absorption. It can be frustrating to follow a protagonist whose driving force is more pot and whiskey, but under the surface the narrative actually works really well. The key is that the movie doesn't know Jenny is the hero. Instead, she's a realistic person learning at a realistic rate. Think about your day. What are the stakes? What do you absolutely have to do before the day is over? I'm guessing it's a short list. Jenny's life is like yours. She's broken and kind of awful, but not in any way you can point at. She doesn't give an "I Want" speech to Carson in a coffee shop somewhere. There are no measurable benchmarks in her journey. She doesn't really have a journey. I normally hate this, but it works here because there are no false pretenses or promises of higher purpose. It's just a movie about a girl who does some stuff.

Full disclosure before I move on: I love Anna Kendrick. Her smile lights up the screen and her snark cuts lesser mortals in two. Even her boring characters have a delicate self-deprecation that I find irresistible. She's fantastic in the film, and watching her improvise only furthers my admiration of her wit and intelligence. I could watch her file her nails. I could watch her file her taxes. She charms my pants off and I don't care who knows it. Hell, I've got it so bad that I found myself entranced by scenes of her staring at her laptop. I am broken. She broke me. Anyway.

I included the quote about Jean-Luc Godard's Breathless above because Mumblecore's jumpy editing and fractured scene structure lovingly evoke that of the French New Wave. True, there's no swagger or adventure in these suburban stories, but the comparison remains legitimate. Continuity shots can be optional. We don't need to see characters get from place to place all the time. We don't always need dialogue establishing exactly what everyone is doing in any given scene. Sometimes we learn more about a character by watching her play with a toddler than we do by listening to her explain to a love interest exactly what she wants. So what if it doesn't have anything to do with anything? With a little patience, we see these sketches come together to paint a picture.

Reckless Jenny is juxtaposed with sweet Kelly, former novelist and now Just Mom. Melanie Lynskey plays her as a lonely soul who won't admit she's lost her way while struggling with the crushing weight of motherhood. It's a tough role, but Ms. Lynskey is gold in it. Her unrealized potential provides an interesting counter-point to Jenny's malaise, and their paths align when Jenny suggests she pick up the pen again and write a trashy Danielle Steel-esque paperback. Their brainstorming sessions are a ton of fun. Debates over the sexiest euphemism for "vagina" are great "show, don't tell" moment for each one of them. Bonding, fighting, distance, closeness, loss, it's all gravy and the improvisation adds the last essential layer of honesty. And it's all measured. Considering what I said before about false catharsis (I'm looking at you, Silver Linings Playbook), let me tell you how this doesn't end: There's no tidy resolution at a book signing event. Kelly doesn't go off on a righteous tirade against middle-class domesticity. The climax of this film rests on an argument over a burnt pizza. It's only after that we realize the film has been all about small changes happening in excruciating intervals.

Happy Christmas is a wonderfully honest character piece that relies more on small moments than big drama. Jenny learns some important lessons, sure, but she'll definitely screw up again. At least she and Kelly are comfortable enough with each other now that next time she'll get an honest earful instead of an awkward interrogation. At least she knows her nephew a bit better and can contribute in meaningful ways around the house. At least she finally got to smoke that joint with her big brother. Some days, a win's a win. 


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