Language is a funny thing. Take that word “funny”. No doubt when most people read the title, they will think “comedy”. But the film also includes elements which are funny as in strange, or funny as in uncomfortable. The language here is no doubt purposefully chosen, in part to show that this film denies genre conventions. It aims instead for something more organic, and in doing so, hopefully more truthful. Having said all that, writer/director/co-star Andrew Bujalski has crafted one of the more interesting films to cross my way in some time. In its opening moments, 23 year-old college graduate Marnie (Kate Dollenmayer) is looking to get a tattoo. The scene is a perfect beginning to the film. It sets the tone, as Marnie has no idea what she wants, and when she does finally make a decision through a drunken haze, it turns out to be a poor one. The film repeats these rhythms, as Marnie stumbles through life, without a clue of what to do, and making bad decisions right and left. Some of those decisions are comical, some are uncomfortable, and still others are off the wall.
Maybe that description doesn’t sound endearing, but the reason the film works is that Dollenmayer and Bujalski combine to make Marnie a person who earns our empathy. Sure, some of her actions induce anger, but we never lose sight of a delicacy or fragility she carries with her. Her poor decisions, usually with men, leave scars. And it’s not just that we feel sorry for her. Marnie takes the time to help people out, whether it be hanging out with lonely Mitchell, or giving Liz a place to crash for the night.
All of this is done with such a light touch, in such an endearing way, that it’s hard not to admire the film. Bujalski also seems committed to a healthy realism that marks the film off stylistically from most of what’s out at the megaplex. Several times, and especially after the film’s final scene, I was reminded of the Dardennes, with their own penchant for realism and the unique rhythm to their storytelling. Except Bujalski’s film is funny. In Funny Ha Ha, Bujalski offers something that’s becoming increasingly rare at the cinema these days – a film that defies simple classification and provides a unique film watching experience. I’m looking forward to seeing where he goes from here.