Funny Ha Ha (2002)

Directed by Andrew Bujalski

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It’s hard to describe the appeal of Funny Ha Ha.  It’s an early entry, perhaps the first, in the unofficial “mumble core” movement, those films made on tiny budgets among friends, possibly improvised and with not so great sound quality.  These are stories about young adults working their way through their young adult worlds, and which are surely not far removed from the real lives of the people involved.  In that way they are a bit autobiographical, the new millennium’s version of Slacker or Reality Bites.

From what I’ve read Funny Ha Ha is not improvised, which is all the more amazing considering how much stammering there is in the movie.  Characters struggle so mightily to find the right words to say what they want to say, and oftentimes what they want to say amounts to very little.  This is all shown through Marnie’s journey, bouncing from one job to another, drunkenly considering a tattoo and alternately seeking out and avoiding the comfort of Alex, a man she quite likes.

The movie is shot in apartments and crowded offices, at an occasional restaurant or in a park.  It’s a rather droll existence, one that doesn’t inspire confidence should you be a recent graduate wondering what comes next.  These characters hardly know, but Marnie is the only one who seems to be asking any questions, if only because she struggles to find where she fits in.

It’s a bunch of characters walking into walls and turning around, like lab rats in a maze.  They work temp jobs until they hate it enough to quit, they get drunk at house parties and wonder if the alcohol lubricates the conversation with friends they see all the time anyways.  They get lonely and reach out to someone they’ve been ignoring and then by the end nothing much happens.

This isn’t to make it sound uninteresting because I quite liked this movie.  There’s an art to all the stammering and indecision, and it feels incredibly familiar, at least as a twenty-something.  The characters here are aimless, wandering between structured environments.  Gone are the college days in which they had a schedule to tell them where to go and when to be there, and yet to arrive are the nine to five days.  In the meantime they don’t have any obvious means of expressing themselves, unlike the “slackers” of Richard Linklater’s 1991 film who seemed oblivious to the systems outside of which they were living or if they even cared.

These characters have nothing grand to say about the world or themselves.  They’re just trying to be adults, to explore themselves and the community around them.  One character elopes with an old girlfriend for no discernible reason other than perhaps there was nothing on tv.

There is an odd affection here for these characters, again surely because of the autobiographical element (director Andrew Bujalski plays one of the more interesting but irritating characters in the movie).  It’s as if all they want is to be normal but it’s far from easy.  Every new relationship forged feels heavy and forced, and the same characters cling uncomfortably to old relationships.

If anything it just shows how painful transitions in life can be, even the most minor of them.  Marnie just wants to find some sense of peace, to find herself and to figure out what will stick and what won’t.  Watching that search onscreen may be aggravating to some, but I found it endearing and honest.  Sure these characters are a bit self-centered and sullen, but it’s only because they don’t yet have the tools to navigate their way through the world.  And I’m not sure anyone sincerely believes they have all the tools to work their way through the world.

So Funny Ha Ha in all its awkward, fumbling honestly shines a light on the imposter within all of us, the part that feels we’re not worthy of something or other, the one we hide.

Up Next: The Art of Self-Defense (2019), Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939)/Dave (1993), River of Grass (1994)

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