Directed by the Duplass Brothers
The Puffy Chair, a low budget affair by the Duplass Brothers, begins with a seemingly happy couple getting into a sudden fight, and that tension hangs over the rest of the film until they break up in the final scene.
There is a growing distance between Josh (Mark Duplass) and his girlfriend Emily (Katie Aselton) that neither of them are prepared to bridge. This is a good time to bring up the difference between plot and story. The plot of this film is the two of them, along with Josh’s brother Rhett (Rhett Wilkins) tracking down an old puffy chair, a replica of one their dad used to own. The plan is to leave New York and pick it up along the way, then to take it home to their father for his birthday.
In the first act we meet Josh and Emily and get a sense of what their relationship is like. The second act begins when, after picking up Rhett, they get to the chair-seller, but the chair is in much worse shape than promised. Josh gets pissed (he has quite a temper), and he demands that the man fix the chair and do it quickly. His anger isn’t about the chair as much as it is about a growing uncertainty about his relationship with Emily. This uncertainty has been bubbling up since their first fight in the very beginning of the film. This fight was never resolved but rather smoothed over when Josh made an endearing but not very earnest move to invite her on the road trip with him. The fact that he hadn’t asked her earlier is more striking than the fact that he does now.
So when the chair is a mess, he begins to explode. We don’t see how Josh convinces the man to have the chair reupholstered over night, but it’s implied that he threatened to reveal that he knows the man has been using undocumented workers. It makes sense why Josh wouldn’t want to tell this to Emily, so when he won’t answer her inquiries about what he said to the man, she lets it drop.
The whole film makes it clear that they’re ignoring the inevitability of their doomed relationship. And their relationship is the story. The chair doesn’t matter. If anything, it’s just something for Josh to focus his energy on when everything else seems to make him sad or distressed. HIs band has recently disbanded, and he tries to convince himself it’s for the best, but it’s obvious this pains him.
The only other thing he takes solace in is being right. Emily is much more taken with Rhett’s charm, but Josh knows his brother and the ways his mind works. When Rhett meets a girl and decides to marry her that night, Josh and Emily play along. Josh, though, is just playing and Emily really believes in the romance between Rhett and Amber. That night Josh and Emily have their biggest argument when she asks him what he thinks will happen with Rhett and Amber. Josh, ever the realist, says he thinks they’ll last about a week. This pisses off Emily, and their opposing views on the ambitious but naive marriage is all about the question of whether they themselves will ever get married. This is made very clear when she tells him that she would marry him right then if he asked. Josh tries to turn the tables on her, but it only ever feels like the swings of a defensive child, trying to pull someone down with him.
The next morning, when Rhett says he and Amber are done, Emily decides she’s had enough. He shits on marriage in a way similar to his brother and in a way that offends her. Again, it’s obvious this only reflects her frustrations with Josh, but by this point that distance between them feels like it has congealed, and I felt very uncomfortable watching them together.
They go to pick up the puffy chair, and when the guy says it’s not done, Josh threatens him and demands he finish it right then and there, which he does. Rhett, unhappy by the way Josh went about acquiring the chair, sets it on fire the next night, and when Josh tackles him, you expect there to be a catharsis, in which everyone realizes they love each other.
The second act ends with the chair burning, signaling in many ways the end of the plot though part of the plot did include them seeing their father for his birthday, which they then do. Their father never cares about the chair, partially because he didn’t know about it, but also because it doesn’t matter. He’s just happy that they came by and spent time with him and their mother. So while the plot is complete, the story is not.
Despite the apparent peace between the three characters in the wake of the chair burning (and Josh breaking his arm), the distance remains between Josh and Emily. By now it has solidified, meaning they can walk across it and approach the topic of their breakup, but they do so as carefully as possible.
Emily suggests they break up, even though it’s very much Josh’s wish that they call it quits. He’s a surprisingly confrontational dude throughout the film, but here he is suddenly shy. They embrace, and the story ends.
I will say that I love this movie, and I even liked the end, but the way the two characters broke up felt a little too lengthy and staged. I’m sure this movie was heavily improvised (based on the Duplass’ preferred filming style), and I’m sure they were playing around with the scene, but the dialogue felt more clunky, and when it ended, I found myself saying ‘who cares’ about their relationship despite knowing that I cared.
I loved this movie partially because of the story and the characters but also because of how independent it is. These movies (like Buzzard and other improvisational, collaborative films) inspire me. They make filmmaking feel possible whereas something else like 2001: A Space Odyssey, while also incredibly inspiring, doesn’t.
When I try to write scripts or even just story outlines, the process of constructing a story feels incredibly complex. Every story I want to write suddenly becomes War and Peace when I try to understand the order of the scenes and character arcs. But in this film, like I said earlier, the second act (usually the hardest to break and the longest portion of the script) starts with them being told their chair isn’t ready and ends the next night when the chair is burned). These aren’t giant, grand moments or physical battles, but they mean the world to the protagonist and help propel his own character growth. The failure to get the chair at first makes Josh act with impulse and begin to look inward, wondering what would make him act so harshly. Then his aggressive behavior at the end of the act (coupled with his brother’s fire in rebellion to Josh’s behavior) crystallizes his fears and frustrations, confirming what he before only suspected and before that didn’t even realize. These moments are incredibly important to the main character and thus to the story.
So a film like this (and like any good film) hinges on the characters. The Duplass Brothers had to understand how these characters interacted, what their lives were like but also what they were hiding and what they themselves weren’t even aware of.
The Puffy Chair is occasionally funny, but it always felt more interesting as if we were spying on this couple. This is probably because of the actual shot distance (often close ups of the characters’ faces in their happiest, angriest, most intimate moments) and also because of the video quality, which looked like home videos.
Though there’s no real reason to care about Josh or Emily or Rhett (they all have their flaws), the movie makes you care about them, maybe not because you need them to be happy but because you just want to know how they end up.