OPEN UP THE Sept. 2 issue of Entertainment Weekly and there it is.
No. 8 on "The Must List," a compendium of 10 things the magazine's staffers "love this week," is a movie you may not have heard of by someone you almost certainly have never heard of: "Funny Ha Ha," by Andrew Bujalski, a first-time writer-director whose "wry indie gem," according to EW, "applies Cassavetes' loose improv style to a tale of a woman not quite ready for adulthood." (See review on Page 32.)
Wow . . . John Cassavetes. Let's also throw Mike Leigh in there, to whose verite-style films "Funny Ha Ha" has elsewhere been compared.
So how does the 28-year-old filmmaker, with whom we chatted by phone from Boston, feel about keeping such highbrow company? When we caught up with him, he was, judging from the background noise, washing his dishes. Must have had some time off from his day job, a bookstore gig he has recently taken to supplement his substitute-teaching income.
"I'm flat-out amazed by the response," says Bujalski, adding that the only thing keeping his head from "spinning around more" is the fact that the film hasn't exactly been an overnight success, building up word of mouth only slowly through screenings at such obscure showcases as Birmingham, Alabama's Sidewalk Film Festival. Just last month, Bujalski says, he observed the fourth anniversary of the film's last day of shooting. The script, written when he was 22 and living in Austin, a recent Harvard grad with a degree in film, grew out of his frustration with the failure of mainstream movies to speak to the circumstances of his life, even those films that purport to be about his generation. Calling most of those movies a "pack of lies," Bujalski says that "the most frustrating ones are the ones that have a kernel of truth smothered in falsehood."
His roommate at the time was Kate Dollenmayer, an animator working on filmmaker Richard Linklater's "Waking Life," and a woman whose "extreme charisma" convinced Bujalski that she could carry the film he had in mind about a mopey office temp named Marnie. It would be a film for which he would hire (scratch "hire," since almost no one would get paid) all nonprofessional actors. A film whose shambling storyline would follow the rising and falling fortunes (both romantic and job-related) of a woman "beleaguered by existential issues."
Sounds more funny strange than funny ha ha.
Bujalski is the first to admit that his film, in which he also appears on camera as Marnie's geeky love interest Mitchell, is far from a comedy. It doesn't even try to deliver the kind of pat resolution so familiar to audiences from Hollywood storytelling. For that reason, he suspects, the movie has been doing worse with the age group around whom its plot ostensibly revolves than with an older art-house crowd. "I'm reluctant to speak for a generation," Bujalski says. "The film is not intended to do that, and I don't think it does." Still, he notes, with a kind of perverse pleasure, he did see Adam Sandler buying a ticket for the film at a Los Angeles theater. "We quietly tailed him," he jokes. And did he like it? "I have no idea."
While reluctant to "pick on" a particular mainstream movie, or even one of the "glossier indies" that attempt to tap into the zeitgeist of post-college rootlessness, Bujalski can tell you exactly what sets "Funny Ha Ha" apart from the typical movie about "disaffected people in their twenties" who are looking for answers. "The only way to end a movie like that is to end with the end of the search," he explains. "Yet anyone I've ever known who feels adrift continues to feel adrift. You could say that my electing to throw myself into films is, in fact, an attempt to escape from other issues in my own psyche, for example an existential confusion, a sitting around waiting for something to happen."
Unlike some of his own characters, Bujalski has not been sitting around waiting for something to happen, and he's not about to rest on his "Funny Ha Ha" laurels. He has a second film in the can, "Mutual Appreciation," another on-the-cheap production made with borrowed equipment, nonprofessional actors and money chipped in from friends and family members. The story, which Bujalski describes as "stranger and funnier and sadder" than his debut, concerns the "psycho-sexual high jinks" that take place among the friends of a musician (real-life musician Justin Rice of the rock band Bishop Allen) who moves to New York after his group breaks up.
Careful to point out that his films are neither works of documentary nor anthropology, Bujalski nevertheless hopes they get at something that feels real, not just about the young, but about all of us.
"Truth is not a litmus test for art," he says, noting that while cinematography might be the "truthful documentation of something that is there," the process of editing is "completely manipulative and false." Nevertheless, he says, "you get at the truth through lying, and you get at lying through the truth."
Heavy stuff for one so young, but maybe not for one as determined -- one might even say destined -- to look for meaning, if not an audience, as Bujalski. "I know these films are for a minority taste," he says. "It's difficult to make that economically viable, when film is the most expensive of all art forms. How do you make money? How do make something with massive appeal? I don't know, but I think I'm doomed to it."
"Funny Ha Ha" opens Friday at the AFI Silver Theatre. Bujalski will appear at the 9 p.m. screening Friday (a double bill featuring a one-night-only sneak preview of "Mutual Appreciation") as well as at the 5 and 9:45 screenings on Saturday and Sunday. The film is also available on DVD.