If John Cassavetes had directed a script by Eric Rohmer, the result might have looked and sounded like “Mutual Appreciation.” Indie auteur Andrew Bujalski (“Funny Ha-Ha”) has studied his mentors closely — Mike Leigh and Jim Jarmusch are among his other obvious influences — and put whatever lessons he learned to good use in this unaffectedly naturalistic and appealingly quirky low-key comedy about twentysomethings in the process of inventing themselves. Fest-friendly pic should earn appreciative reviews and respectable B.O. in limited theatrical play.
Justin Rice hits all the right notes of ego, anxiety and affability as Alan, alt-pop singer-songwriter who travels to New York after a break-up with his bandmates. Disbanded group achieved just enough recognition with a promising CD for Alan to land a Manhattan club date. Just as important, his semi-celebrity status gets him an interview spot on radio show hosted by Sara (Seung-Min Lee), who later lures an ambivalent Alan into bed.
Despite the post-interview one-on-one, Alan insists he’s too focused on his music to waste time on distractions. Trouble is, he can’t help feeling some stirrings of attraction to Ellie (Rachel Clift), longtime live-in girlfriend of Alan’s buddy Lawrence (writer-director Bujalski). The attraction is mutual, but both parties are reluctant to take next step.
Much like Rohmer, Bujalski offers sympathetic scrutiny of characters who are so loquacious and self-analytical they seem driven to talk themselves out of happiness. But whereas Rohmer’s characters generally are erudite and eloquent, Bujalski’s vaguely discontented twentysomethings hem and haw, stumble and mumble. Many scenes have a semi-improvisational feel, but static stretches are rare. Perfect-pitch performances go a long way toward giving seemingly shapeless scenes some semblance of narrative momentum.
Pic has the tone of a shaggy-dog comedy, but that’s not to say it lacks edge. Cassavetes’ influence is most apparent whenever Bujalski hints at darker undercurrents and potential pitfalls.
There’s an ineffable air of underlying tension, if not percolating menace, during an extended post-concert get-together in the apartment of a too-friendly record exec (Bill Morrison). Similar suspense tempers the surface frivolity while attractive women cajole Alan into wearing make-up during a latenight party. Neither scene pays off in predictably melodramatic fashion, but that does little to dispel the uneasiness Bujalski subtly generates.
Grainy look of B&W cinematography and slightly scruffy production design add to the impression of real life captured by a clear-eyed, fair-minded and heartily bemused observer.