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Mumblecore Goes Mainstream

Mumblecore Goes Mainstream

Articles - Acting

The mumblecore genre is characterized by naturalistic settings and shooting styles, improvised dialogue, non-professional actors and twentysomethings sitting around and talking to each other about their lives. It doesn’t sound like the sort of thing that would be gracing the local multiplex anytime soon, but it has finally gone (relatively) mainstream with the limited release of Noah Baumbach’s Greenberg on March 26th, 2010. Greenberg stars Ben Stiller as Roger Greenberg, an unemployed omega male who moves to Los Angeles to deal with some of his problems. In the process, he falls for his brother’s assistant, Florence (Greta Gerwig).

The mumblecore genre hasn’t been around for very long, and you’ll find many of the same directors and actors in multiple mumblecore films (Greta Gerwig acts in three of the six films listed below; Mark Duplass either directs or acts in four of them). To coincide with the release of Greenberg, MovieMaker presents a list of some of the more preeminent mumblecore films that have brought the genre to where it is today.

The Puffy Chair (2005)
directed by Jay Duplass & Mark Duplass
Josh (Mark Duplass) has bought a red La-Z-Boy reclining chair for his father’s birthday and has decided that he’s going to make the trek down the east coast to deliver it. He gets into a fight with his girlfriend, Emily (Katie Aselton), and invites her to come along so they can patch things up. Thus begins this mumblecore road movie. Eventually, Josh’s brother Rhett (Rhett Wilkins)—a New Aage sort who sits in a bush recording footage of a lizard outside his apartment building—joins the party. Their relationships with each other are tested, there’s lots of talking (this is mumblecore, after all) and in the end there’s no scene where Rhett’s tearful father accepts the chair and he and Josh forget all their problems. It sounds cliché, but the point of The Puffy Chair isn’t the destination, but the situations the main characters find themselves in along the way.

LOL (2006)
directed by Joe Swanberg
One thing that mumblecore directors do well is taking a premise that seems traditional enough—something that a Hollywood director could really run with—and making it their own, turning the typical idea of what a movie “should” be on its head. With The Puffy Chair, it’s the road movie genre; LOL, on the other hand, is an examination of how modern technology affects our lives. It sounds like it might be a good thriller (Gerard Butler in Gamer, anyone?). Swanberg, however, takes the concept in a completely different direction, instead focusing on how the interpersonal relationships of three twentysomething males are affected by their constant use of e-mail, cell phones and online chatting. The picture it paints is pretty bleak—one character actually stays over at a friend’s house and proceeds to flip out when there’s no working computer, meaning he can’t check his e-mail. The movie, though it certainly has a viewpoint, draws no conclusions about the benefits of modern communication technology and what it should be used for.

Hannah Takes the Stairs (2007)
directed by Joe Swanberg
Hannah, a TV production intern played by mumblecore mainstay Gerwig, always seems somewhat discontented. Toward the end of the movie, a conversation with her friend and co-worker Matt—a conversation that begins with them discussing Matt’s prescription antidepressants—veers through the territory of Hannah talking tearfully about her discontentment and ends with their first kiss. In traditional Hollywood fare, this would lead to a swelling romantic score and the implication that everyone would be happy from here on out. Though the film does end with a musical number (Matt and Hannah sit in the bathtub playing a two-trumpet version of Tchaikovsky’s 1812 “Overture”), the audience is left with the sense that Hannah has not found her one true love. Is her constant state of not-quite-happy something that will continue for the rest of her life, or is it just a symptom of her being a post-college twentysomething? The movie, like most movies on this list, features a lack of resolution, and gives the audience the feeling that, though the characters have been through the emotional wringer, nothing much has changed.

Baghead (2008)
directed by Jay Duplass & Mark Duplass
Four friends go into a cabin in the woods in order to come up with a brilliant screenplay that will jump-start their acting careers. They find themselves being stalked by a man with a paper bag over his head. He stands ominously around, threatens them with a knife and takes the battery out of their car. It sounds like a straightforward horror movie, right? But this is mumblecore, so not so much. The setup is an opportunity for character-revealing conversations, and while there is a lot of crying and yelling (as per a typical horror movie), the ending differs markedly from the normal genre formula (hint: no one dies).

The Exploding Girl (2009)
directed by Bradley Rust Gray
Let’s get this out of the way: The Exploding Girl isn’t really mumblecore, yet it doesn’t really qualify as a straightforward drama, either. It’s not a comedy, it’s not a thriller, nor is it some sci-fi epic with a massive budget, a la Avatar. Of all the genres listed, mumblecore probably come closest to describing The Exploding Girl’s blend of introspection and realistic settings and sound. But one of the things that defines the mumblecore genre is all the talking—there’s witty conversation, stupid conversion, insightful conversation, inane conversation. Part of what defines The Exploding Girl, however, is the excellent use silence. The story takes place in New York City, so it seems like there’s never a shortage of background chatter, traffic noise and police sirens, but it’s the lulls in conversation between the two main characters, Ivy (Zoe Kazan) and Al (Mark Rendall), which make the film truly beautiful.

Humpday (2009)
directed by Lynn Shelton
The premise of Humpday is this: Ben (Mark Duplass) is happily married, while his college friend Andrew (Joshua Leonard) has been aimlessly drifting, trying to find direction in his life. A party is attended, drinks are consumed and Ben and Andrew find themselves having agreed to make a gay porn film together as part of an art project. It sounds very contrived and, after all, if they were drunk when they came up with the gay porn idea, couldn’t they just chuckle about it the next day and call it off? It seems like the movie could fall apart on this point, but the brilliant dialogue between Ben and Andrew sees each one trying to get the other to back down. The result is funny, without a doubt, but it’s emotional as well (specifically the scene where Andrew inadvertently tells Ben’s wife about their plan; ouch).

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