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Reflecting on 20 years of 'Funny Ha Ha' and the mumblecore film movement

Christian Rudder in writer-director Andrew Bujalksi's 2002 film "Funny Ha Ha." (Courtesy Goodbye Cruel Releasing/Photofest)
Christian Rudder in writer-director Andrew Bujalksi's 2002 film "Funny Ha Ha." (Courtesy Goodbye Cruel Releasing/Photofest)

To hear him tell it, writer-director Andrew Bujalski didn’t deliberately set out to make a generational touchstone with his 2002 debut “Funny Ha Ha.” But the film, which follows the post-collegiate drift of 23-year-old Marnie (Kate Dollenmayer) during an aimless summer of go-nowhere jobs and sub-par suitors, made a massive impact for a microbudget movie, its no-frills filmmaking and inarticulate characters kickstarting what controversially came to be known as the “mumblecore” movement among hip, young, indie directors of the era. The picture’s influence is still felt so strongly today, it’s difficult for me to wrap my mind around the fact that “Funny Ha Ha” is now almost as old as Marnie. “How old does that make us? That’s the painful question,” laughs Bujalski.

Chatting via Zoom from his home in Austin, Texas, the writer-director is reminiscing in advance of a 20th-anniversary screening of “Funny Ha Ha” he’ll be attending this Thursday, April 28, at the Coolidge Corner Theatre. Watching the movie again for the first time in 15 years or so triggered some Proustian flashbacks for this critic, as few films have more accurately captured the transitory, after-graduation limbo of temporary Allston apartments with their bare walls and hand-me-down furniture, as well as that nagging feeling that your adult life is supposed to have started already but you haven’t figured out how to get it going yet.

"I was not going into it as a scientist. This was just what was around me."

Andrew Bujalski

That “Funny Ha Ha” so vividly conjures such a specific time and place was something of an accident, at least according to the filmmaker. “That was just where we were,” he explains. “When I first started going around with the movie, so many people were reacting to it or discussing it as anthropology, which is not what I was intending. I was not going into it as a scientist. This was just what was around me.”

Bujalski graduated from Harvard University’s Visual and Environmental Studies program in 1998, and spent a year after that living in Cambridge, where he had his own time in the wilderness similar to Marnie’s. “I had a part-time job. I stumbled into a gig teaching a high school film studies class. I was temping. I knew I wanted to make movies, but I didn’t quite know what that meant. Kate Dollenmeyer was one of my roommates. She was another Harvard kid, and a bunch of us moved down to Austin together. I guess that’s when this idea got in my head. She was, and is, a wildly charismatic person, and I thought maybe there’s a movie to be made starring Kate.”

But Bujalski’s first attempt at this quintessentially Allston-Brighton movie was very nearly shot in Los Angeles. “Mercifully, it fell apart,” he says with relief. “I can’t imagine surviving that shoot in LA. Semi-miraculously, somehow enough circumstances came together so we could do it in Boston. Kate’s from Hopkinton. I moved around a lot but grew up mostly in Newton. We’re both Boston people. That’s where we had friends and family who could help us out. Somehow we got through it,” he smiles.

Dollenmayer is in every scene of “Funny Ha Ha,” a captivating camera subject who anchors the almost plotless movie’s mood swings between uncertainty, apathy and annoyance. In one of the film’s most exquisitely uncomfortable scenes, a passive-aggressive co-worker with a crush (played by the director himself) speculates that 90% of the men Marnie knows are head over heels in love with her, a fact to which she remains willfully, sometimes a little mean-spiritedly, oblivious.

It’s an incandescent debut, but aside from a brief appearance in Bujalski’s 2005 follow-up “Mutual Appreciation,” Dollenmayer had no interest in pursuing performing. The filmmaker says that shortly after “Funny Ha Ha” became a small sensation, a casting director reached out to her about auditioning for a Judd Apatow comedy. “Kate read the script and said ‘this is stupid’ and that was that for her Hollywood acting career,” he laughs.

“Making work like this and exposing it to an audience, you learn a lot about yourself,” he confesses. “In some ways, it’s like having a terrible therapist. People are gonna give you a whole lot of feedback and they’re gonna tell you all about yourself. Some of it makes no sense at all, and some of it’s pretty painful.”

Bujalski’s sound mixer Eric Masunaga coined the term “mumblecore” to describe the actors’ stammering, “it’s like, you know” speech patterns, but this quickly became a catchall phrase with which the entertainment press, at times unfairly, characterized a crop of up-and-coming independent filmmakers including the Duplass brothers, Joe Swanberg, Aaron Katz, Lena Dunham, Alex Karpovsky and Greta Gerwig. For Bujalski, referred to in countless articles as “the godfather of mumblecore,” the moniker came to feel more like an albatross.

"Making work like this and exposing it to an audience, you learn a lot about yourself. In some ways, it’s like having a terrible therapist."

Andrew Bujalski

“It was a publicity thing,” he sighs. “If you’re talking about chatty movies with minimal plots and a lot of white people talking to each other, none of that was new. All of that had been around for decades of movie history. The only thing that felt new was that perhaps you were seeing some particular generational characteristics. We were the young people at that time who were making those movies so we had a slightly different frame of reference than people who were doing the same thing 20, 30 and 40 years earlier. To me, that’s not a movement.” But two decades down the road, the director has made his peace with the dreaded m-word. “As much as that word was a torment and I’m sorry that it will be etched into my tombstone, it was a convenient way to get people’s attention.”

Rewatching “Funny Ha Ha” from the vantage of adulthood, it’s hard not to wonder where some of these characters might be today. My hunch, which seems to amuse Bujalski, is that his intensely annoying office-mate, Mitchell, would now be a big crypto guy. “I used to fantasize about a sequel,” he says. “All I had was a title, though: ‘Brouhaha.’ I think the window of opportunity came and went there. Now, I think if we were ever gonna do a sequel, let’s find Marnie in her 70s. The older I get, it’s interesting to me to see how adolescent problems — and ‘Funny Ha Ha’ is about the extended adolescence that many of us experience — they don’t go away. They transform. They bubble up somewhere else. I’m starting to get my head around that maybe these things Marnie was dealing with at 23 might still be there for her at 73. We’ll see if I can convince Kate to do that. We’ve got time.”


“Funny Ha Ha” screens at the Coolidge Corner Theatre on Thursday, April 28 followed by a Q&A with writer-director Andrew Bujalski.

Related:

Sean Burns Twitter Film Critic
Sean Burns is a film critic for The ARTery.

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