Depending on whether your taste runs to (or far away from) talky, low-budget twentysomething relationship comedies by the likes of Andrew Bujalski and Joe Swanberg, you either loved or hated Mark and Jay Duplass’s 2006 debut, The Puffy Chair, a keystone of the so-called mumblecore movement. Merry pranksters with an emo touch, the New Orleans–bred Duplass brothers (now in their thirties) retooled the road movie for that film’s fraught fun ride through the aching heart of slacker romance. In their latest, Baghead, they’ve mashed up a clever spoof of film-festival culture with a comedy about sex and friendship that brilliantly flirts with the horned-up-youth-vacationing-in-the-woods genre of ’80s slasher flicks.
After attending a dispiriting film-festival Q&A, four wanna-be actor friends from L.A., including ringleader Matt (Ross Partridge), his ex-girlfriend Catherine (Elise Muller), bosom buddy Chad (Steve Zissis) and Michelle, (Greta Gerwig), a ditzy acquaintance Chad’s crushed out on, decide to hole up in a cabin for the weekend, trying to write a script they intend to cast themselves in. Alcohol consumption and a game of Scrabble triggers some hilarious cross-couple flirtation, and jealousies mount. When Michelle and Matt each encounter a creepy figure wearing a paper bag over his head, they wig out and wonder if someone’s playing a not-so-cool joke. Then the real fun begins.
Baghead doesn’t deal with weighty matters; its truths are small and mostly observational, its humor sly and often discomfiting. Whether the Brothers Duplass are gently skewering the sometimes pompous milieu of festival culture (“How much was your budget?” asks someone at an underground art film called I Am Naked, hilariously echoing an oft-repeated, cringe-inducing question) or engineering the awkward efforts of Zissis’ lovelorn shlub to seduce mumblecore siren Gerwig (Hannah Takes the Stairs), the larky quality of their set-ups never comes across as mean-spirited. And the visual references to Friday the 13th and Halloween aren’t just clever, they’re genuinely frightening; the Duplass brothers display a cheeky inventiveness when it comes to staging woodland bumps and chills. Though the young filmmakers have mastered the art of working on a small budget (they were nominated for the Independent Spirit John Cassavetes Award in 2006, given to films made for $500,000 or less), they also seem ready for bigger studio projects. Hopefully, they’ll always make some time for quirky, lo-fi comedies like this one.
Baghead, 2008. Sony Pictures Classics.
Directed by Mark and Jay Duplass.