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Mutual Appreciation

1 rating: 5.0
Comedy movie directed by Andrew Bujalski

Alan's quest for success in music and love is hampered by one thing-- himself. Centering on Alan's half-hearted romancing of radio DJ Sara and promoting his fledgling band, Mutual Appreciation is less a love story than an insightful and hilarious portrayal … see full wiki

Director: Andrew Bujalski
Genre: Comedy
1 review about Mutual Appreciation

Painfully funny and awkwardly beautiful -- independent cinema at its very best

  • Nov 27, 2007
Alan (real life indie rock star Justin Rice of Bishop Allen) and Ellie sit awkwardly next to one another on his bed. The trouble is that there is palpable chemistry between them, a chemistry that is absent in her relationship with her boyfriend Lawrence, who also happens to be Alan's best friend.
"This feels like ninth grade math class," she says and he doesn't get it but goes along anyway.
"Yeah I guess this reminds me of math class too," in his always slightly bemused tone.
What she means to say is that you have these lines that converge, but never quite reach.
"Asymptotes," he says, "A - symp - totes." She says that's what they are like, those converging lines.
"Yeah," he smiles, "I guess I got that part."

Lines that never quite converge, trajectories that are never quite fulfilled, people who can never quite say what they mean because it would presume too much, would solidify commitments and presume conventions that none feel they can fully and unironically endorse. In spite of the apparent improvisational feel of Andrew Bujalski's brilliant sophomore film, there is a geometrical motif that runs throughout the film and that helps to lend it a coherence that holds up to repeated viewings. The film opens on two parallel lines, the bodies of Alan and Ellie as they lie down and speak of nothing much on the futon bed that Ellie shares with Lawrence in his apartment. Lawrence arrives and deliberately superimposes himself between them, saying nothing but suggesting a premonition of their asymptotic convergence. The love triangle, which is only belatedly and barely acknowledged by any of them, becomes a circle in the end.

This is a brilliant film, easily the equal in terms of originality and honesty and power of revelation as any of the great indie masterpieces like Stranger than Paradise or Sex, Lies and Videotape or even works by Cassavettes -- in fact it is the raw and improvisational feel of Cassavettes' work that this film resembles most. I think, in many ways, it is a funnier and more spontaneous film than any of these others. At the same time -- and this is true of Cassavettes' work as well -- the appearance of an improvisational and spontaneous approach is the result of a great deal of forethought and planning and careful scripting. Bujalski builds his stories around real life characters and real life conversational styles, but it is modified and tailored carefully.

There are a number of features of this film in particular that indicate this care and attention to detail. The film is shot in rich black and white 16mm film -- and has a texture and range of tonality that you don't see in indie projects shot on video. While it has a documentary feel, with a slightly shaky camera -- the framing is clearly thought out very carefully, and every scene is composed to convey a specific meaning (like the geometrical shots referred to above). There is a very intriguing scene in which Alan and Ellie are in a cafe talking, again about nothing much, but circling around questions that would imply a growing intimacy -- and Ellie's friend shows up and stands between them. The camera shows him arriving but after that (and until he begins to leave) always insistently frames only either Ellie on his left side or Alan on his right excluding the new arrival and shows them reacting to what he says by looking to see how each other is reacting. What is remarkable about this film is that it has such a careful and deliberate structure that feels casual and improvisational -- at least on the first viewing.

One thing Bujalski almost never does is present his characters when they are "on their game," or when they are putting on their professional personas. There are times when we don't speak like these characters do, when we don't hesitate or pause awkwardly -- it is when we know what we are about, when we have a specific agenda and we are clear about our motives or when we are performing a task we understand. Certainly the characters in this film have such moments, and in most films these are the only moments we see of characters -- the classical style of film involves cutting out or eliding all the awkward pauses and focusing on moving the action forward, having every moment be decisive. But Bujalski is not interested in such moments, when we are polished and we have planned out what to say -- and are, effectively, hiding our insecurities and awkwardness behind a mask. He looks to the moments that bring out insecurities, and uncertainties, when one doesn't quite know what to say or do -- and also to the moments when, with friends and lovers, his characters can led their guards down and be dumb and boring and weird and awkward, and he tells his story by connecting together a series of just such moments into a whole whose coherence only appears gradually.

The exception in this film is notable: when Alan goes on stage and begins to sing and play he is in his element, he is confident and shining and having fun, and sounds very good (once again: Alan's character is played by the lead singer of the very fine band Bishop Allen and all of the music is theirs). It is important to the story to show that these characters, who don't quite know what to do with their lives and are insecure in their loves and in their words are not incompetent or lazy or untalented. Alan, who may be the least stable of the three, is a drifter by choice, but an artist by vocation -- his pursuit of music is a drive that he can't let go of without losing something of himself. He dreams of a kind of ideal society, something like the artistic community he believes he is finding in NYC, in which artists could sort of just come together and support one another in their various projects and not let mundane things like commitments and economics get in the way. That is, of course, unrealistic, as Lawrence suggests and as Alan's father never ceases to insist. Still it is a good fantasy, a vision of mutual appreciation, a celebration of both individuality and collaboration. A very fine film.

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