Thanks to an inexplicable screener malfunction, I rewatched most of the first twenty minutes of Beeswax, “mumblecore” writer/director Andrew Bujalski’s third film, with trepidation. Being already familiar with the set-up and characters, I was immediately drawn to Bujalski’s decidedly more polished mise en scene and not his characteristically winsome beat-riddled dialogue. In Beeswax, Bujalski’s camerawork is no more polished here than in either Funny Ha Ha or Mutual Appreciation, but it is assuredly less anthropocentric.
In the film’s first scene, Bujalski blatantly directs us to look first at the stuff on display in the Storyville Boutique, the film’s central location, and then its employees and customers. That blunt stab at bourgeois critique sailed over my head the first time around not because it’s particularly subtle but because, having read as little as possible about the film, I wasn’t expecting a “mumblecore” melodrama where the protagonists speak louder as consumers than as kinda friends, kinda acquaintances, kinda lovers.
Beeswax’s excess of ambition does not suit Bujalski’s modest but effectively unvarnished style. Focusing on the gradual dissolution of the business partnership between storeowners Jeannie (Tilly Hatcher) and silent partner Amanda (Anne Dodge) and the uncertain professional future of Jeannie’s sister Lauren (real-life twin Maggie Hatcher), Bujalski lovelessly represents them through bland conversations about what comes next: a lawsuit, a job, a check, a lawyer, an interview, etc. Because they have trouble processing that greater responsibility, they have nothing particularly memorable to say, but rather stumble through each successive encounter fretting about their future with their realistically monotonous, yet not particularly engaging, indecision.
Like the “mumblecore” movement itself, accepting the film’s ponderous preoccupation with Jeannie and Lauren’s money problems is the key to judging whether or not Bujalski has in fact grown as an artist or has simply taken a heady detour. I find myself in the latter camp. He does not break up the film’s episodic confrontations enough for me to ever really feel engaged enough to seek out the nuance in them.
The intersection between Jeannie’s commercial and personal relationship with Merrill (Alex Karpovsky) is only convincingly fleshed out in every other scene or three. Knowing that Bujalski isn’t entirely off his game is that much more exasperating because it means that he’s no longer looking to further perfect his unassuming talent for precision editing, arguably best exhibited in Mutual Appreciation, but is instead focusing on new and distracting things.
I can’t get out of my head the scene where Jeannie calls over a stranger to help her descend from Merrill’s car and the “Wal” in a nearby “Walmart” sign threatens to burst into the foreground. It’s my retrospectively distorted version of what’s wrong with the film in a nut-shell as it announces the inescapable presence of the film’s 500-pound fiscal gorilla but doesn’t go far enough to say anything about it more thoughtful than “Yumpin’ yiminy, look how pervasive Capitalist signposts are!”
Simon Abrams writes about comics, books and movies for the Comics Journal, the L Magazine, the New York Press and Slant Magazine. Since last year, he’s been obsessively keeping a film journal where he writes down something about every film he’s seen.