Most of the ha-ha’s in Funny Ha Ha are not exactly funny: Andrew Bujalski’s debut feature is foremost a squirming comedy of recognition. This Boston ultra-indie—which Bujalski wrote, directed, edited, and co-starred in—slouches through the blurry limbo of post-collegiate existence, a period at once ephemeral and cruelly decisive. It opens with 23-year-old heroine Marnie (Kate Dollenmayer) stumbling into a tattoo parlor, where the proprietor refuses to ink her because she’s plastered. This movie about the fear of the permanent—and the barely conscious, unwittingly reckless processes behind life-altering decisions—might be subtitled The Possibly Indelible Adventures of a Desultory Twentysomething.
Funny Ha Ha proceeds in slackerly fits and starts: Marnie drifts between numbing temp jobs and mulls over romantic prospects that are either undesirable or unobtainable. A long-harbored, not-so-secret crush on college pal Alex (Christian Rudder of the Brooklyn band Bishop Allen) flares up when he splits with his girlfriend. A flurry of brutally inept matchmaking within their circle of mutual acquaintances culminates in an excruciating phone call (later topped by a painful encounter at the neighborhood supermarket). Meanwhile, in a luckless role reversal, Marnie is pursued by Mitchell (Bujalski), a dorky co-worker who makes his move with the conversation stopper “So, like, what’s your deal?”
Shot on 16mm in an unassuming pseudo-vérité, Funny Ha Ha is less offhand than it first appears. (The grainy, gangly naturalism and an early rave from critic and Cassavetes expert Ray Carney have prompted a string of somewhat misleading comparisons with the forefather of American independent film.) A movie full of goofy-cute people conducting profoundly casual and casually profound conversations littered with dangling sentences and pockets of dead air, it’s seemingly designed to elicit a collective c’est moi from twentysomething hipster enclaves across the country. But Bujalski doesn’t just reproduce the halting, roundabout patterns of actual talk—he has a keen ear for the defensive and passive-aggressive uses of inarticulate speech.
Alex’s evasiveness has a lot to do with his selfish desire to preserve the status quo—he’s in a position to enjoy his ambiguously flirtatious rapport with Marnie more than she is. Mitchell, perhaps strategically, alternates fumbling shyness with obnoxious bluntness. And Marnie, especially in dealing with Mitchell, conceals her more manipulative impulses behind a convenient air of eccentric distraction. Churning up mixed messages and conflicting intentions, Bujalski keeps the mood deftly poised between funny and sad. At her lowest, Marnie composes a to-do list, complete with little check boxes, which includes “learn to play chess?” and “fitness initiative!!” In the next scene, she’s enlisted the gauche Mitchell to help out—though the leisurely afternoon of basketball and board games turns sour in elaborately queasy ways.
Structured around nonevent and inaction, Funny Ha Ha recalls Jamie Thraves’s 2000 British indie The Low Down, a neglected mini-masterpiece of quarter-life malaise. Bujalski’s film likewise thrums with ambivalent dread—underlying the characters’ inert indecision is a reluctance to let the rest of their lives begin, not least for fear that it might prove an undifferentiated haze. The final scene is as close to perfection as any Amerindie has come in recent memory—in a single reaction of Marnie’s, we see a small but definite shift in perspective; abruptly, Bujalski stops the film, as if there’s nothing more to say. It’s a wonderful parting shot for a movie that locates the momentous in the mundane.