Mutual Appreciation is a comedy about nothing, but Appellate Judge James A. Stewart cautions that you won't find Jerry Seinfeld in it.
"Long awkward pause is—maybe—I don't know how long it will last. It's like a staring contest."
In Mutual Appreciation, that quote is about the developing—maybe—relationship between Alan and Ellie, but it could also describe the movie itself. It's already been hailed as "naturalistic" elsewhere. At times, that seems to mean that "um" is the most common word in the dialogue. Overall, it means that filmmaker Andrew Bujalski's aim is to, um, capture the cadence of everyday life among twentysomethings.
Bujalski's first film was Funny Ha Ha. "People started to describe it to me as a film about awkwardness and inarticulateness," Bujalski told Reverse Shot Online about the film. That would describe Mutual Appreciation as well, since its young musician protagonist is portrayed as a man who's unsure of himself. He's passive in romance and nervous before performances; his hesitant speech patterns are an indicator of, um, his inner anxieties. The movie doesn't follow Bujalski, in a supporting best-friend role, as closely, but his character also shares the, um, hesitant speech pattern.
Mutual Appreciation has been appreciated by the Newport International Film Festival, which gave Bujalski a jury award for Best Screenplay, and the Peniscola Comedy Film Festival, which gave Rachel Clift its Best Actress honor. The movie started a barnstorming run of brief engagements in August 2006, but chances are you didn't get a chance to catch it before its DVD release.
The story follows Alan (Justin Rice), a musician who arrives in New York without his band. He's staying in the apartment of someone who's out of town and, um, hanging out with bud Lawrence (Andrew Bujalski) and Lawrence's girlfriend Ellie (Rachel Clift). Alan needs a drummer—fast—for an upcoming gig. That problem's solved when he does a radio interview and finds out that the host's brother Dennis (Kevin Micka) fits the bill.
Trouble is, Dennis comes with Sara (Seung-Min Lee), the overly amorous radio host. When he goes with her to her apartment to talk, she's soon, um, on top of him in a liplock. Sara's not the only one who's eyeing Alan, though, since Ellie is developing a crush on her boyfriend's bud. When Lawrence, um, spends a weekend out of town to attend his ex-girlfriend's wedding, Alan and Ellie have a chance to explore their Mutual Appreciation.
What did I think? Well, um, I, er—uh. Let's start by saying that, when Ellie mentioned to Alan that she thought she had a crush on him, it was somewhere around the 75-minute mark and it seemed to come out of nowhere. Was the fact that Rachel Clift delivered her lines with the same "You dweeb!" embarrassed frown in scenes with both Lawrence and Alan supposed to be, um, foreshadowing? It also didn't seem quite normal that Lawrence just analyzes what happened between Ellie and Alan, interrupting his analysis at one point to offer Ellie a cup of tea from his extensive collection. Shouldn't there be more signs of anger or jealousy here? It's only, um, natural.
You'll also find that handshakes are as much of a recurring theme as "um." Alan's getting introduced to people a lot, but it's also the goodbye he gives Ellie after their night together.
The movie has some moments of real humor that would be hard to capture in a Hollywood film, such as when Ellie wants to know all about Sara's kissing ("Were you complicit?") and Alan's feelings about it, or when Alan clenches a fist and Lawrence hides behind Ellie, who dispassionately tells him, "I ain't your bodyguard." These scenes do play out like funny moments among real friends. I also felt I was genuinely watching people who were just starting out, full of ambition despite financial limitations and the need to prove themselves.
Mutual Appreciation was shot in black-and-white on 16 mm film. There are some grainy spots, though not as many as you'd think; the natural lighting leads to some dark or washed-out scenes. The movie looks decent for what seems to be an ultra-low budget, with a quick-cut mix of angles that keeps it visually interesting. The sound's all ambient, with music coming from tapes or Alan's actual performance; since the protagonist's a musician, this doesn't seem glaring until the silent final credits. I watched a screener disc, but it seemed representative of the final product.
The commentary features parents of the cast and crew commenting on the movie. They're not all favorable, with comments like "For the audience, a little sexual chemistry is worth something," "There's no excitement, no content, no plot," and "I can't figure the point of the whole thing." This part, along with the trailers devoted to telling you how many good reviews (The New York Times calls Bujalski a "veritable sculptor of dead air") and awards the little film has recieved, seems aimed at intimidating you into liking it. After all, excitement, content, and plot are fuddy-duddy concepts that your parents would expect. You're cool, so "a delicious honesty" should be enough, right?
There's also a short, "Peoples House," which follows Walter and Alan's Dad around the house. It's more of the same, but in color.
Overall, the movie feels like an evening hanging out with friends shooting the breeze, a simile that's especially apt since Bujalski tapped his pool of young creative friends for his cast and crew. It captures the atmosphere well enough, but watching Alan, Lawrence, and Ellie hang out isn't as much fun as, um, actually hanging out with friends shooting the breeze.
As a "romantic" film, this, um, goes nowhere—slowly. As a character study of the nervous Alan and an essay on, um, awkwardness, Mutual Appreciation works better, but Bujalski could stand to sharpen his pacing more and develop his ideas further. His "Someone to Watch" award at the 2004 Independent Spirit Awards was deserved—you'll be hearing more from this guy someday—but this movie is still a rough draft.
Guilty or not guilty? Well, um, I, er—uh. Let's put it this way: Andrew Bujalski's a talented filmmaker who accomplished what he set out to do. The movie had a few good moments, but I wouldn't want to watch it again.
It's a promising introduction to a fresh young talent. However, movie realism usually tends to be a sort of hyperrealism that's paced better than real life. While approximating real conversations is honest and real, it's not always exciting. Thus most viewers will want to wait until Bujalski sells out and pairs his honesty and realism with excitement, content, and plot, not to mention a little less dead air. Better put this fresh young talent on probation.
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• An original short by Andrew Bujalski: "Peoples House"
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