Friday, March 16, 2012

More on the Duplass Brothers

Mark and Jay Duplass come from New Orleans, Louisiana and before getting their start on feature-length films they did a number of short films. They are often associated with the mumblecore movement, but aside from including Greta Gerwig in Baghead and Mark Duplass starring in a couple films from Joe Swanberg and Lynn Shelton (also associated with mumblecore, especially Swanberg), their storytelling style has always been well-rounded and with purpose. Whereas Joe Swanberg's films are much more meandering and showcase an uglier, rawer aesthetic.

But the Duplass Brothers have a style that has easily transitioned into modestly-budgeted studio fare. There's still an indie flavor to their latest two films and they star well-known comic actors, but they've grown and matured as they've gotten older, meanwhile, their peers seem to have stayed behind (although Lynn Shelton's next film sounds like it's a step above "Humpday").

It's an encouraging thing too because mumblecore has really started to mean less and less and has become an increasingly more derisive aesthetic. Twenty-something post-college grads whining about their empty lives gets old quickly. Although Swanberg seems to have gone in a different direction altogether. Lena Dunham has found success after Tiny Furniture and the buzz around Girls is very promising, she's here to stay.

But the Duplasses, I think, will wind up being at the top of the class. They've really outdone themselves with Jeff Who Lives at Home. While it still has their lowkey style, it at least ends in a more definitive way. It's a lighthearted comedy, but with a lot of heart. Cyrus and The Puffy Chair are both filled with great moments, but they both kinda just ended. Jeff Who Lives at Home actually has a plot that leads to something that thinks of a bigger picture whereas those two other films were mere slices of life.

Let's look at their previous three films more closely:

The Puffy Chair

Made on a $15,000 budget, starring Mark Duplass (Josh) and his wife Katie Aselton (Emily). The Puffy Chair is about the two of them embarking on a road trip down South to visit Josh's parents and along the way, picking up a puffy chair that looks exactly like the one Josh's dad had. Along the way, Josh picks up his somewhat dimwitted brother, Rhett. The trip was initially supposed to be about Josh and Emily rekindling their relationship along with giving his dad the gift, but Rhett kind of makes that more difficult. The Puffy Chair has a lot of great little moments though, including Josh trying to get a motel room for one guest, attempting to convince the manager that he drove alone. There's the mishap with the guy selling the puffy chair as the chair winds up looking in much worse shape than what appeared online. Then there's Rhett randomly getting married to a woman he met at a movie theater. The problem with The Puffy Chair is that it doesn't ultimately amount to anything. In other words, the sum isn't greater than the whole of its parts. Still, it's a very promising debut and it's enjoyable to watch. Grade: C+


Not so much a misstep as it's just a minor blip on their filmography at this point, Baghead is just bad. It's forgettable and probably the most "mumblecore" of their four films. Starring Greta Gerwig and three other unknowns, Gerwig is easily the standout of the film as she is in the other mumblecore films she starred in around this time. The rest of the cast just isn't very good and they do not elevate the material in anyway. The structure is just way, way too lose as there's barely any plot and yet it doesn't really explore the characters at all other than meaningless relationship woes. Then there's the extremely laughable attempt to dabble into horror with the mysterious man with a bag over his head who scares everyone in the cabin that the four characters are all staying at. What keeps this film together is both Gerwig and, actually, the Duplass Brothers style. If they weren't behind this, this film would've been a total failure. As it is, it's just a misstep when compared to the rest of their filmography. Grade: D


And then there's Cyrus, the Duplass's first foray into mainstream filmmaking. While their excessively zoomy style is very much in play, as it is in their previous two films, this is actually the point where Duplass showcase their skill with their actors. John C. Reilly and Jonah Hill are at their best as they essentially play rivals against each other as John (played by John C. Reilly) is starting to date Molly (Marisa Tomei), the mother of Cyrus (Jonah Hill). Molly cares a lot for Cyrus, perhaps too much, and Cyrus feels John is intruding on the relationship he has with his mother. Cyrus, much like Jeff Who Lives at Home, has a lot of funny moments and a lot of honest moments between its characters and it's more sure of itself than The Puffy Chair is. It marks as a welcome change-of-pace for the brothers and it showed that they were very promising filmmakers. I gave the film an 8/10 two years ago when I reviewed and since I've changed to letter grades, I'd give this more of a B- which isn't too far off. Cyrus, like The Puffy Chair, isn't wholly satisfying, but the strong performances and more focused storytelling is what sets it apart. Grade: B-

So adding all of this context into it, you can see that Jeff Who Lives at Home is a clear improvement from these three films but these guys have always shown that they could make good films. We'll see where they go from here as Mark Duplass has quite a few side projects, including co-starring on an FX sitcom with his wife ("The League"). They have another film that premiered at SXSW called "The Do-Deca-Pentathlon" which was apparently shot before "Cyrus" and according to The Playlist, it was better off being shelved. However, I would like to take a look at it to see how their style improved between Baghead and Cyrus, if it improved at all.

Overall, I'm interested in these filmmakers because I feel like they're onto something. They're kind of in the same territory as Noah Baumbach, but with more down-to-earth and likable characters. Then again, Noah Baumbach has a more visually-appealing aesthetic. It's funny I bring up Baumbach since Greta Gerwig and Mark Duplass both appeared in his last film "Greenberg"... but I digress. The Duplass Brothers should be celebrated for their refreshing, relaxed style of storytelling that doesn't rely on dick jokes or gross out humor. Their films are smart and as long as they keep improving on their style, they could really be outstanding filmmakers. I'm really looking forward to seeing what else they have in store in the near future.

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