Judge Bill Gibron just couldn't get into this improvised comedy about disconnected twentysomethings stumbling through the world. He actually has a life.
A Slice of Life as Snooze Fest
Hannah (Greta Gerwig, Baghead) has just broken up with her disgruntled musician boyfriend Mike (Mark Duplass, The Puffy Chair). Finding it hard to connect emotionally or physically with anyone else, she throws herself into her job. As part of the production team for a local filmmaker/TV entrepreneur (Todd Rohal), she works with two other writers—blog king Paul (Andrew Bujalski, Funny Ha Ha) and the neurotic Matt (Kent Osborne, Surviving Christmas). Initially, she rebounds and falls for the Internet sensation. But his needy non-confidence, especially when dealing with the professional side of things, turns her off. Soon, Hannah has gravitated toward her more complicated coworker. Matt, doped up on antidepressants, gives our confused career gal an outlet for her own psychological slurry, and together they form a bond built on self-absorption and a society that sells them a specialness bill of goods that will never come due.
If Lars Van Trier is the champion of the no-frills filmmaking style known as Dogme '95, then Joe Swanberg is the king of its icky indie equivalent, Dogcrap '08. Believing in a low-budget ideal that pits poverty against creativity in an improvised dialogue battle royale, the results usually redefine the notion of "homemade." A perfect example of this aesthetic quandary is the lame, lackadaisical shoe-gazer Hannah Takes the Stairs. Nothing says "lack of inspiration" faster than a film that can't bother to script its ideas, that relies on the limited literary skills of its actors to bring to life complex themes involving love, loneliness, and the current post-millennial malaise of feeling lost. Adlibbing should be left to Catskills comics, TV talk show hosts, and members of Second City, and that's about it. Nowhere in this numbing 80 minutes of moroseness does anyone say anything remotely reasonable or realistic. Even worse, our heroine hops from bed to bed looking for a physical way to cure her compulsive dissatisfaction. If whining were wind, this Hannah would be a Category Five Hurricane all by herself. That she has a trio of male suitors all huffing and puffing along with her is enough to make FEMA close shop permanently.
Granted, Swanberg is clearly playing to a demographic that has yet to mature in the process of existence and is using every excuse in the pseudo-slacker book to avoid that inevitable human trait of growing up. Living in Chicago, the apparent new home of inner-vision idleness, our characters complain constantly about the inability to connect and their own lack of happiness. Yet instead of trying to change things from their miserable perspective, to embrace trauma and letdown as the growing pains they play out to be, these people become more insular, gravitating toward their own likeminded mirror image. That anyone would find this insightful is one thing. That anyone would find it entertaining is another. With its mumblecore rhythms and zombified dramatics, Hannah Takes the Stairs is like a private joke between plumbers. If you're part of the clique, you'll see yourself in every unexpressed emotion and introspective shuffle. If not, you're left scratching your head and wondering what's so special about a group of late-twentysomethings simpering their lives away.
It would be nice if Swanberg could offer some cinematic flair to fill in the gaps, but he's firmly locked in lo-fi mode. Bob Pollard could take lessons in limited resources reproduction from this moviemaking firebrand. While Dogme '95 never said anything about making movies purposefully amateurish, Hannah Takes the Stairs has all the visual acumen of a '70s prom video. There's lots of nudity from people who should maintain clothing at all costs, close-ups revealing a lack of makeup, and awkward angles where the camera clings to the action like a fly surrounding some spoiled meat. Everyone here has musical aspirations—Hannah's first beau was in a band, that is, until music no longer made him content—and there is an undeniably odd moment at the end of the proposed narrative. In it, our heroine, having finally settled on the most mentally unstable member of the boy parade she's been sampling, plays a naked trumpet duet with her similarly undressed partner while lounging in the tub. The selection? The "1812 Overture," of course. If you understand said allusion, you'll love this movie. If you don't, this entire experience will leave you cold and confused.
Genius Products and the Weinstein Company present Hannah Takes the Stairs in a decent 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen image that accents the characters' need for some time in the sun. Flesh tones are washed-out white and primary colors clash with the muted atmosphere of the Chicago streets. There are no major defects and the overall look is very good, considering the technical sources and the money spent. On the sound side, the Dolby Digital Stereo 2.0 mix is a tad tinny, lacking any significant ambience or bass. Even with an internal microphone recording technique, the dialogue is easily discernible. As for extras, Genius goes all out, providing lots of excellent added content for a film that really doesn't deserve it. There is a full-length commentary from director Swanberg, and stars Greta Gerwig and Kent Osborne. It offers a great deal of behind-the-scenes production information, as does the solid "Making-of" featurette. There are deleted scenes, a short film featuring Gerwig, a collection of SXSW video diaries, and the usual theatrical trailer. Again, not bad for an unexciting indie effort.
Maybe age plays into one's appreciation of Hannah Takes the Stairs. Anyone under 30 will probably connect instantly with the forlorn malaise and abject angst of everyone involved. But in a world where much bigger problems than personal happiness exist, such shallow self-pitying is aggravating, not engaging.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Genius Products
• Full-length Audio Commentary with Director Joe Swanberg and Actors Greta Gerwig and Kent Osborne
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