Andrew Bujalski’s quietly impressive “Funny Ha Ha” uses the uncertain future of a smart but shy, post-graduate Boston woman as the launching pad for a beautifully observant and wholly unpretentious film with roots more in Cassavetes than Sundance-style showbiz. Made under the sway of the DIY (Do It Yourself) art movement, pic is a deliberate throwback to a much earlier American indie period, when filmmakers shot on 16mm, recorded in mono and didn’t bother with a production company moniker. Besides being a surefire fest item, the film could have a bracing effect on adventurous auds and young filmmakers alike given the right distrib handling.
“Funny Ha Ha” serves as a memorable debut for first-time thesp Kate Dollenmayer, whose Marnie becomes unselfconsciously emblematic of an entire generation of over-educated, under-employed American youth.
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Marnie is first seen drunk at a tattoo parlor, but she’s hardly some “bad girl”; rather, she seems to take each step through life gingerly, not quite sure where to walk next. Randomness seems to rule her existence: She runs into friends Dave and Rachel (Myles Paige, Jennifer L. Schaper) and tags along with them to dinner, where she admits to Rachel that she has a crush on Alex (Christian Rudder) but instinctively — and, it eventually turns out, correctly — senses that it will go nowhere.
Film introduces characters and situations, and then allows them to percolate naturally to the surface. At her new temp office job, Marnie is seated alongside nice but ultra-nebbishy Mitchell (Bujalski), whose awkward way of showing interest in her doesn’t emerge until his desperation move on her during her last day on the job.
The subsequent dates between Marnie and Mitchell surely rank among the most painfully awkward and real encounters between the sexes in recent movies, culminating in the sort of thoughtless and spontaneous behavior that goes on all the time in real life, but almost never on screen.
Bujalski’s improv approach is gracefully married with a style that is not overly-dramatic, and therefore seems just a hair short of pure documentary. Even unexpected encounters that other directors may have exploited for intense dramatic effect, such as a drunk Dave suddenly kissing Marnie in a car, play out and then fade away with the natural pulse of everyday life.
Just as underplayed are myriad character details, such as Marnie’s evident interest in religion, that are gently observed but never underlined.
The non-pro cast appears inspired from the first frame, none more so than Dollenmayer, who invests Marnie with a genuine expression of innocence concealing a certain adult wisdom that keeps her out of serious trouble. Dollenmayer is uncommonly attuned to Marnie’s moment-by-moment responses –and knack for confused and confusing conversations, the film’s constant source of wit.
Tech package couldn’t be less slick, and this becomes the movie’s true badge of honor.