Nights and Weekends, like much of its mumblecore brethren, operates under the principle that by presenting nothing but the exhausting banalities of everyday conversation, the filmmaker is able to get at something deeper in the lives of his characters than would be possible by focusing on explicitly dramatic moments. It wouldn’t do to suggest that such an approach is completely invalid; after all, something very like this method is operative in many of Cassavetes’s more interesting films (Faces, Husbands). Nor must the characters be the type of people prospective audience members would relish spending time with, but the central couple in Joe Swanberg and Greta Gerwig’s film (played by the directors themselves) is so vapid, their conversation so unrevealing, and their jokes so wretchedly unfunny that the picture takes on the feel of a particularly inept vanity project incapable of holding the interest of anyone besides the filmmakers’ close friends and family.
The story of a joyless couple negotiating a long-distance romance (he’s in Chicago; she’s in New York), the film consists of an endless stream of words, as the two leads dance around the stresses in their relationship, filling in the blanks with bits of observational humor, incoherent babble and frequent moments of whiny huffing. The last is the special province of Gerwig, her character exhibiting the emotional maturity of a particularly disaffected adolescent. Between asinine expressions of calculated oddity (she discourses on, for example, her dislike of watching people eat bananas) she showers Swanberg with random outbursts of hostility, while all he can do is smile indulgently. Needless to say, it takes considerably more than the actress’s quirky/snarky mash-up to create a coherent characterization. But given the filmmakers’ staging strategies (the hand-held camera fixes the leads in continual close-up, the background always neutral or out-of-focus), all we’re left with are the ramblings of these two aggressively inarticulate dullards, perpetually present in front of a camera whose artless framings do them no favors.
If Cassavetes’s films inspired future filmmakers with their DIY aesthetic, then Swanberg and Gerwig’s efforts seem calculated to discourage enthusiastic amateurs from getting anywhere near a camera. Everyone thinks their bull sessions with their friends are fascinating, but Nights and Weekends serves as ample proof that unless you can structure these conversations into coherent chunks of exposition, then these sessions are just bull, plain and simple.