Directed by Jay and Mark Duplass
Baghead is the new film by the Duplass Brothers, and if you have absolutely no idea who I am talking about when I say that, hopefully you will soon. Two years ago, they impressed me quite a bit with an a little-seen debut called The Puffy Chair, and their winning streak continues with Baghead; with a bit of luck, it will overcome a trailer that makes it look like an uninspired, straight-to-FearNet horror picture and catapult its directors into the first rank of art house filmmakers.
This isn’t the four-people-in-the-woods-get-themselves-killed movie Sony is trying to sell. At its core, it’s a relationship comedy, with elements of horror sprinkled into it. If you really wanted, you could consign it to the dustbin of mumblecore, that subgenre of film making and next-big-trend that really hasn't picked up as much steam as Andrew Bujalski would hope. But the appeal of the Duplass Brothers and their work is their ability to defy, even transcend, simplistic labels.
So now that I've managed to confuse everyone, why did I like Baghead?"
For starters, the opening scene is brilliant. We meet our quartet at a debut screening of a movie that’s arty in all the wrong ways, chock-full of attention-grabbing nudity and shot in black and white. When the director comes out for the Q & A, the first question is about the budget; he replies that it was a thousand dollars, but that he’d hoped it would be five hundred.
Anybody who’s ever attended a festival will recognize the smug pretension of that answer, and our characters have a good laugh at it. Afterwards, they regroup in a restaurant and decide to go off into the woods for the weekend and write a screenplay for a movie that will get them out of bit-part purgatory. There’s Matt and Catherine (Ross Partridge and Elise Muller), who seem to have had a fling going on for almost ten years; he says its over, and she says that he’s the love of her life. Then there’s Chad (Steve Zissis), who has a crush on his friend Michelle (the excellent Greta Gerwig), but she seems to have her eyes set on Matt, especially during this weekend get-away. Chad manages to seal the deal with her, though, scripting her as his girlfriend in their movie. But nobody is able to come up with any plot ideas until Michelle has a dream about a eerie figure with a bag over its head. And then creepy things start to happen, and we start to suspect that Baghead isn't a figment of anyone’s imagination after all.
But don’t be fooled by that tinge of horror: The Duplasses are far more concerned with the relationships between the characters than with simplistic scares. The horror-movie trappings are mainly a satirical way to highten the tension between the quartet. I was surprised how much I enjoyed the company of these characters, and just how natural they were to me. Greta Gerwig, who was the best part of Hannah Takes the Stairs, continues to showcase her talent here, in an extremely natural, easy performance. There are some good laughs between Partridge and Zissis, and Muller plays a jealous angel quite well, avoiding easy caricature. And while the horror elements are easily bought into - there are a few fun scares sans any hint of blood and gore at all - it was not until after the film that I realized how they fit into the master plan of the filmmakers.
Baghead avoided being everything I expected it to be, but in an extremely good way. I left the theatre extremely satisfied with what I saw, and I really loved everything about it. I loved the characters, their dilemmas, and especially the final scene, which reaches an unexpectedly poignant high. I left not only happy to have seen the film, but happy that the characters had managed to content themselves, as if I had just spent the past 85 minutes with good friends.
This is the aim of filmmakers like Andrew Bujalski's, but his films reek so much of pretension that they’re like hanging out with ambitious, untalented, bad-poetry-writing art school freshmen. But without trying as hard as Bujalski, the Duplass Brothers create natural characters that we want to be around. The film reminds us that there is hope - hope in love, hope in life, and even hope in good independent film making.