Largely hailed as one of the no-budget triumphs of the 2006 film year, Andrew Bujalski's Mutual Appreciation (2006) found itself with a lofty score on Metacritic.com, a couple of appearances on critic's Top 10 lists, and the general consensus that Bujalski had fulfilled some of the promise of his debut, Funny Ha Ha (2002). Or, at very least he didn't squander it.
This, of course, sets the bar of expectations pretty high for someone approaching Bujalski's work for the first time (as I am), so it shouldn't be all that surprising to hear me say the film doesn't exactly live up to the hype. But, to be fair, that's more the fault of the hype than the film itself.
The story of Mutual Appreciation is something of a slice-of-life following Alan (Justin Rice), a musician recently moved from Boston to what I assume is New York City. His band has recently broken up over creative differences and it appears his relationship situation has followed a similar path. But he's newly energized — sort of — thanks to NYC and a couple of friends who share his artistic disposition.
It's the sort of film where everyone has some level of artistic involvement, even if they don't see themselves as being at all artistic.
Andrew Bujalski's Funny Ha Ha is generally credited with being one of the first entries in the mumblecore movement, which Bujalski refers to in an indieWIRE interview as "a bunch of performance-based films by young quasi-idealists." What this basically means is that the films are comfortable with raw dialogue and uncomfortable silences, the sort of thing that, you know, happens a lot in real life. The films feel improvised, when they are usually scripted (think of The Office as a network TV approved example of what the dialogue is like). In the case of Mutual Appreciation this results in a film that swings freely between being poignant, beautiful, funny, and… boring. Yes, boring.
There's a lot to like in Mutual Appreciation, a lot of fantastic moments, but there's also a lot of time spent on absolutely nothing, with little to no substance percolating below the surface. A lot of time where I found myself wondering how I could get my hair to look like Justin Rice's. It's never good when a film lets my mind wander that much.
Part of the problem was that at no time did I really find myself connecting with these characters on anything other than a surface level. The film never really lets us get close enough to these people to give us a reason to empathize with them. And this shouldn't have been hard. I know these people. Hell, I am these people. But the best feeling I could muster was "gee, it sure seems like these are people I should like."
It took me awhile to figure it out, how bored and disinterested I found myself for long stretches. Then it hit me: the parts of the film that are least interesting almost universally involve the characters when they are pretty far past sobriety. What the film fails to realize is that two people "mumblecore-ing" is great — until they get drunk. One of the universal rules of alcohol is that drunk people are only interesting to other drunk people, unless they're doing wild and crazy stuff like dancing on tables. The designated driver is almost always the one annoyed by how inane his friends are being, how boring their conversations are. And that's the chief problem with Mutual Appreciation – at times it's a lot like being the designated driver. You're there because you feel compelled to be there, and more often than not you'll find yourself checking your watch once or twice before the night is over.
That doesn't mean there isn't a lot of value in the experience, though.
Starring: Justin Rice, Rachel Clift, Andrew Bujalski, Seung-Min Lee, and Bill Morrison
Cinematography by: Matthias Grunsky
Written and directed by: Andrew Bujalski
R/109 min/Boston, MA
There's all sorts of ways you can check out Mutual Appreciation, whether through Amazon.com or Netflix or any number of retailers. Or, you could just go to the official webpage where you can do all sorts of stuff, and even buy a Limited Edition poster.
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