Baghead is the first mumblecore movie to fail from thematic overambition rather than excessive modesty; for that alone it deserves some kind of prize. Out of the core cluster of these filmmakers, the Duplass Brothers have always exhibited the sensibility most likely to attain commercial success (noted neutrally, neither praise nor pejorative). Perhaps non-coincidentally, Baghead is the first of these films to receive a national roll-out of sorts (in a weird strategy, it’s opened in college towns first—I saw it in Austin a little over a month ago—and proceeded back to the big cities, presumably on a storm of buzz. Then it goes back out to the rest of the world.)
In The Puffy Chair, the Duplass’ offered not just an obviously discernible character arc and honest-to-goodness resolution, they also had characters who could’ve popped out of a mainstream film—unlike Joe Swanberg’s characters (too sexually aware for a H’wood film) or Andrew Bujalski’s cloistered post-grads, they’re red-blooded, jockish guys who say “dude” a lot. After watching The Puffy Chair, a friend of mine on the jockish side himself said, “That was like Mutual Appreciation for my people.” Fair enough. It’s also hilarious, and not in a subtle way. There is also a wall-to-wall soundtrack of indie rock used as a lazy transitional device rather than underpinning the action, but hey, you can’t have everything.
Baghead ups the ante: the laughs are funnier and more raucous, there’s a few honest scares, and a fair amount of suspense. Superficially, the Duplass’ favor the same inelegant shaky-cam that privileges performance over visuals, but here they need a fairly wide visual palate: the performance-driven stuff at first, then a few edits for sudden scares, finally devolving into explicitly Blair Witch run-and-shake cam. They get what they want, but the first, most typical part is the best. There’s the dudes—suave Matt (Ross Partridge) and chunky Chad (Steve Zissis)—and their frustrated flames—old-school Hollywood blond Catherine (Elise Muller) and hipster’s delight Michelle (Greta Gerwig). They’re all at a film festival, attending Jett Garner’s We Are Naked, an obviously risible piece of pretension Garner (playing himself! If that means something to you) exhibits to a largely indifferent crowd. The subsequent, fairly embarrassing Q&A is a dead-on satire that’ll ring true to anyone who’s spent too much time around festivals, even as it features an especially snide tell-off to an audience member who dares to ask how much was scripted and how much improvised; presumably the exasperated filmmakers behind this film will never have to answer that again. In despair, Matt and Chad have a great idea: they’ll retreat to the woods for a weekend and refuse to leave until they have a workable film. Why let the oddly-named, over-muscled filmmakers have it all?
Matt and Chad both want Michelle, Catherine wants Matt, and therein lies the rub. Without presuming to issue any judgments on Gerwig, she’s basically playing a drunker version of herself in Hannah Takes The Stairs: adorably vapid, impossibly cute, and willing to doff her top at a moment’s notice. (She’s mumblecore’s very own Dominique Sanda.) Herein lies a cruel allegory: when I say Catherine is old-school, I mean that she has impossibly long blond hair, wears a lot of make-up, and dresses like a conservative gal out on the town. Michelle (at least 15 years her junior in reality), with her lack of make-up, tousled and mildly spiky hair and casual drunkenness/free-floating horniness, is obviously the more appealing of the two. In other words: Hollywood glamor, prepare for defeat at the hands of the younger, sexier, funner generation. I’ll just suggest that it’s a bit cruel to play out this allegory at the expense of two real actresses; it’s still pretty funny though.
Baghead is at its best in the opening 40 minutes, where the ensemble does expertly timed drunken confusion, misunderstandings and misplaced sexual desire. It’s on less solid ground when it’s finally revealed what it’s all about: a super-ambitious inquiry into the ethical boundaries of achieving realistic effects on-screen by temporarily deluding those later to be exploited for audience enjoyment. With stuff like Great World Of Sound floating around (which at least one critic walked out of because he felt what was on-screen was at the immoral expense of its subjects), it’s certainly not a moot topic. But Baghead doesn’t just do that: it gets so meta- about what’s happening that Charlie Kaufman would probably nod in approval—and, like the finale of Adaptation. and Confessions Of A Dangerous Mind, its ending is so theoretical and arid that even as it makes all the right moves onscreen, it feels like a needless endgame. But the Duplass brothers are really onto something: they seem to be trying to build themselves back up to a mainstream narrative that’ll fulfill all conventional expectations without making a single emotional false step. Baghead is twice as complicated as Puffy Chair and only a little less rewarding, but it’s also gotten them one step closer to Robert McKee’s narrative, except with character truth still on their side.