This review was corrected on February 17, 2005
The delicate art of reupholstery, as it applies to furniture and human relationships, gives weight to the comic machinations of “The Puffy Chair,” the smart and painfully funny debut feature by filmmaker brothers Jay and Mark Duplass. Pic is an unusually human comedy of manners that, even when it falters, feels like a breath of fresh air pumped into an asphyxiating genre. Warm Sundance reception suggests dirt-cheap pic could develop a strong word-of-mouth following, particularly among college auds.
Expanding on the basic formula of the Duplasses’ award-winning 2004 short subject, “Scrabble” — which turned a round of the titular board game into a metaphor for romance — “Puffy” hurtles through a rapidly escalating series of farcical events while honing in on several uncomfortably truthful observations about the rocky road to romantic bliss.
In a hilarious opening scene, struggling musician and booking agent Josh (Mark Duplass) ill-advisedly answers his cell phone in the midst of a “meaingful” conversation with longtime g.f. Emily (Kathryn Aselton), who promptly storms out of his apartment. Then, in an apology scene that snarkily tips its hat to Cameron Crowe’s “Say Anything,” a contrite Josh begs Emily to accompany him on his impending road trip from New York to Atlanta. Their objective: to collect the vintage Lay-Z-Boy recliner Josh has won in an eBay auction and deliver it to his father as a birthday surprise.
It’s a task easier said than done, growing further out of reach with each passing moment. Josh and Emily’s impromptu visit to Josh’s neo-hippie brother, Rhett (scene-stealing Rhett Wilkins), culminates in Rhett inviting himself along for the rest of the trip. Then there’s Josh’s hapless attempt to lodge three persons in a roadside motel for the single occupancy rate. And there’s the puffy chair itself, which looks less like the advertised object than a battered heap of rips, tears and cigarette burns.
Pic is laugh-out-loud funny because of the Duplasses’ unwillingness to go for obvious comic payoffs with humor rooted in ill-judged decisions made in the haste of youth. Despite their young ages (Jay is 31, Mark 28) the brothers’ comic sensibility owes far more to the precisely mounted, slow-burn situational gags of Jacques Tati and Blake Edwards than to the untamed slapstick of the brothers Farrelly.
Yet, the Duplasses turn “The Puffy Chair” on a dime from farce to pathos. Stranded in a backwater burg as a molasses-slow upholsterer tends to the recliner’s wounds, Josh and Emily find themselves examining the cracks in their own relationship. And as “The Puffy Chair” heads into its final stretch, the fate of the chair suddenly seems more certain than that of Josh and Emily.
To be sure, the Duplasses still have some way to go toward sustaining their careful comic rhythms over the duration of an entire feature. Too often the linking material between set pieces feels an uninspired way of getting from point A to point B. And the fate that befalls the pic’s puffy protagonist can be seen coming a mile away.
Perhaps owing to the fact that Duplass and Aselton (who were also the stars of “Scrabble”) are a couple in real life, their onscreen interaction has an intimacy that gives “The Puffy Chair” its solid foundation; the actors achieve an utter unself-consciousness in each other’s presence.
The brothers’ preference for detailed scenario outline over precise script likewise results in dialogue that has the ebbs and flows of real conversation, while director/cameraman Jay Duplass’ handheld, seat-of-your-pants shooting style infuses the film with energy