Made on so frayed a shoestring that it looks like a Dogma project minus the glitz, Andrew Bujalski’s meandering tale of a wayward twenty-something woman searching for some meaning in her life–particularly of the romantic variety–comes across about as vacuous as its array of clueless twenty-something characters. “Funny Ha Ha” has been praised in some quarters for being an accurate portrayal of the empty, uncertain lifestyle of a semi-lost generation. But even if that view is correct, it begs the question of why one should be at all interested in spending eighty minutes with the representatives of it on display here.
The central character is Marnie (Kate Dollenmayer), a blank, lethargic type we first meet when she comes drunk to a tattoo parlor and is refused service by the bemused artist-in-residence. Marnie, who’s just lost her job, feels out her old school friend Alex (Christian Rudder), a nerdy but likable computer type, about taking her on in his scruffy-looking business, but he demurs, instead fixing her up with a research gig for his uncle, a university professor (his position confirmed by the fact that he lets his doctoral robe hang on the inside of his office door). Marnie’s also interested in Alex romantically, as she unwisely confides to her friend Rachel (Jennifer L. Schaper), who then tries to play matchmaker between them–with unhappy results. Rachel’s live-in boyfriend–or maybe husband–Dave (Myles Page), on the other hand, seems a mite over-friendly toward Marnie. Thus far our heroine is restricted, it appears, to the rather cloistered community of her old college crowd, but that changes when she gets a temp position that brings her into touch with Mitchell (Bujalski), a nebbishy guy who takes an immediate shine to her but is too shy to let her know it until her last day on the job. They nevertheless eventually get together in an uncomfortable semi-romance that he takes far more seriously than she does, especially since she’s still clearly smitten with Alex even though he’s gone and gotten suddenly married.
This precis actually makes the script sound more organized than it actually is, however, because everything in the film has a random air, with the episodes presented in a deliberately lax, lackadaisical way marked by dialogue that has a distinctly improvisational feel. Almost nothing is said straightforwardly; it’s all parceled out haltingly and hedged in by constant pauses, circumlocutions and–in particular–stammered apologies. That certainly gives what’s said the feeling of overheard conversation, but from a dramatic perspective it’s also rather flat and dilatory. (The ending, moreover, is both abrupt and inconclusive.) The performances seem similarly improvised, with Rudder and Paige more animated than Dollenmayer and Schaper but perhaps more grating for that. With his hesitations and pauses Bujaski seems to be aiming for a watered-down Woody Allen effect, but he doesn’t provide himself with the witticisms such a characterization would require. It would be a kindness to call this a bare-bones effort from the technical perspective; the sound is terrible, the camerawork jerky, the framing slapdash and the editing pretty much a mess. (Bujaski also served as editor.) But of course a movie of this sort wears its scrawniness as a badge of honor.
There’s a place for films like “Funny Ha Ha,” but it’s really on the festival circuit, where perceived promise often trumps actual accomplishment. Perhaps, as some of its admirers claim, it’s truly realistic. But if so, it makes one wonder whether realism is all it’s cracked up to be.