Judge Jesse Ataide wonders why someone would title an unfunny film "Funny Ha Ha."
"What more do you want…from life?"
A Harvard film graduate gathered up some of his friends and made a movie based on their experiences after they graduated from college, and together they came up with a film daring to depict how dull everyday living is. When the film finally got released five years later it didn't take long before film critics and recent college graduates went nuts, and pretty soon Andrew Bujalski, who wrote, directed and acted in the film, was being hailed as "the voice of this generation."
Facts of the Case
Funny Ha Ha is centered around the everyday exploits of Marnie (Kate Dollenwmayer, who worked on the animation in Waking Life), a young woman stuck in a period of particularly acute post-graduation malaise. Like most 20-somethings, she can't seem to commit to a job, and most of her time is devoted to hanging out with friends during spontaneous get-togethers held at each other's underfurnished apartments. But after confessing a crush on the sweet but flirty and endlessly indecisive Alex (Christian Rudder), Marnie finds herself caught in a series of awkward and humiliating encounters. That is, until the tables are turned and she suddenly finds herself in the position being the undesired love interest of her geeky coworker (Bujalski, Mutual Appreciation), and she finds that she in turn has to tactfully spurn him…
I know of few recent films that have proved as polarizing as Funny Ha Ha but somehow I've managed to find myself in a place suspended between what seems to be the typical "love it" or "loathe it" reactions. There is much to certainly admire in the film, chief among them the relentlessly realism-based dialogue peppered with the inevitable "yeahs" and "likes" and "umms" of everyday speech (which has seemingly inspired a small cinematic movement of its own called "mumblecore"—just take a look at "plot keywords" on the film's IMDb page). In addition to the striking lead performance by the non-professional Dollenmayer, one can't help but be impressed by a particularly mature presence behind the camera in writer/director Bujalski. Confident enough in his vision, he givesFunny ha Ha enough space enough to meander into its own awkward rhythm which as the film progresses begins to feel surprisingly lyrical.
Aside from a number of prominent critics, chief among them John Cassavetes scholar Ray Carney and Film Comment's Amy Taubin, Funny Ha Ha has found a particularly devoted following in young people who assert that the film is a dead-on depiction of their own struggles with post-college ennui and insecurities. The thing is, as a recent college graduate myself lingering in a job that is simply allowing me to buy time before I return back to school, it began occurring to me how dissimilar my own experiences feel in compared to the characters in this own film. Namely, I was shocked when I realized how completely absent from the film is any sense of what is probably the defining element of my generation: technology. Indeed, there's nary a glimpse of a TV or even a computer in Funny Ha Ha, let alone now-ubiquitous "essentials" like cell phones and iPods, to say nothing of the internet, pop culture or even current world events (curious, considering how soon the film was made after Sept. 11).
Not only do all of these things seem to possess no influence on the film's characters, but they seem to have no presence in their living whatsoever. In that way, Funny Ha Ha comes off as a surprisingly antiquated film, or at least one not nearly as grounded in the realities of modern living as it seems at first glance. If many of my peers have had no problems in enthusiastically proclaiming Bujalski "the voice of our generation," I feel like Jonathan Rosenbaum in his review of Regular Lovers (another film I recently reviewed about young people coming to grips with the banalities of everyday living) admitting that I can readily recognize what it is that may give the impression that this film is capturing the essence of my particular generation at this particular moment in time, when it comes down to it, I don't really recognize the portrait.
Despite being shot on film, Bujalski gives Funny Ha Ha has an intentionally grainy, naturalistic feel to it, which is unsurprising when taking into account that he focused on documentary filmmaking during his time in the film department at Harvard. The audio track poses a few problems though—I found myself having to occasionally reach for the remote to turn the volume up so I could follow the film's extensive conversations, and then quickly turning it down because it would get too loud.
This disc also provides an interesting assemblage of bonus material, particularly the feature length commentary track touted as "an outsider perspective from a Russian scholar." It's rather baffling as it's obviously a joke and a parody on the very self-important scholarly commentary tracks featured on discs by companies such as Criterion. On the other hand, the hyperbole (including comparisons between the film and War and Peace, Freudian analysis, etc) is so dead-on in its outlandishness that it's almost believable. Needless to say a commentary is provided, but I don't know if anyone would be able to get through more than a scene or two listening to it. Also included on the disc is a gallery of drawings by Lissa Patton Rudder, a "radio play" (a jab at Warners who often include such extras on their discs?) that feels like an audio outtake from the film, a trailer gallery and the film's theatrical trailer.
Certainly not a film for those looking for escapism, Funny Ha Ha plunks the viewer down into a very distinctive world, and it depends almost completely on the viewer's personal tastes and preferences whether one finds the experience either a compelling dissection of everyday living or a excruciatingly dull foray into a rather banal, self-absorbed college-aged person's life.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Genius Products
• Commentary with Russian Scholar
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