The Duplass Brothers and Bringing the Lo-Fi Mumblecore Aesthetic to Mainstream Hollywood
With the recent mainstream indie success of Mumblecore pioneers Joe Swanberg’s Drinking Buddies and Andrew Bujalski’s Computer Chess, it seems the poorly named but important movement has officially come of age. In the mid-2000s, the films and filmmakers broadly lumped into the sometimes pejorative term “Mumblecore”, were often low-budget, low-production value films with non-professional actors navigating the conflicts and relationships of middle-class white male Americans in their late 20s.
Mark and Jay Duplass’ first film, The Puffy Chair, is a quintessential Mumblecore entry. Low-concept, relationship drama-driven, and heavy on the zoom button, the film mixes the unpredictability and reality of a documentary with the character malleability of a narrative in a way that makes the characters, relationships, and locations feel lived in and real. The drab production and costume design creates an authenticity that helps Duplass and co-star Katie Aselton play a devastatingly emotionally accurate break up in what feels like real time. The loose construction of a road trip allows us to feel a real sense of the necessity of their physical progress in contrast to their emotional decline. The Duplass Brothers allow the viewer to feel close to the characters by keeping them in tense, cramped spaces and situations without cuts and allowing the pauses and nuances in normal conversation to breathe without feeling the impulse to edit them out, as traditional film language would dictate.
However, unlike the rest of their Mumblecore classmates, whose talent and ambition begrudgingly outgrew their DIY ethos and love for limited resources, the Duplass Brothers seemed to always have Hollywood on the mind. Directly following the success of The Puffy Chair, the duo moved to Los Angeles, abandoning the regionalism that defined much of the work of their peers. Their follow up film, Baghead, is recognizable as Mumblecore both stylistically and in the way it was produced, but since they have made much more polished indie dramedies notably different from their previous work particularly in the star power attached. Cyrus, The Do-Deca Pentathlon, and Jeff, Who Lives at Home may not be aesthetically similar to The Puffy Chair, but in many ways the characters and even the filmmaking choices are trying to accomplish very similar things. This is particularly true of Jeff, Who Lives at Home.
Featuring a character that could have been plucked straight out of the Apatow universe (a stoner man-child who lives in his mother’s basement played by Jason Segel) and a low-concept about families and relationships, Jeff, Who Lives at Home in many ways was marketed and presents as a mainstream hollywood buddy comedy. However, it becomes apparent very early on through Segel’s low-energy, slow-affect performance that the pace and tone of the film does not necessarily match what is expected of the subject matter. In his review, A.O. Scott writes that the Duplass Brothers “attempt to bring the scruffy, discursive, lo-fi aesthetic of Mumblecore into some kind of harmony with the genre imperatives of commercial moviemaking.” This is certainly true of the filmmaking style, with The Duplass Brothers, through their incessant use of the zoom button, managing to take their time with the material in a way that mainstream Hollywood joke machines are not afforded. Segel brings the low-energy realism of Mumblecore to his performance and allows the sudden zooms to capture specific emotional beats in his face that makes the character seem more vulnerable and relatable than your average comedy schlub.
Aside from Segel, Ed Helms as Jeff’s brother, Pat, and the plot he drags Jeff into play as more traditional broad comedy. Jeff and Pat spy on Pat’s wife on a date with another man, crashing cars and hiding behind dumpsters in the process. But what makes the film specific and unique is the way Jeff exists in this plot and world. It is as if the Duplass Brothers went into the movie with idea of placing a Mumblecore character into a movie-like situation. Jeff gets a high-stakes Hollywood ending in a way that wraps up more cleanly than life, and therefore a Mumblecore film, possibly could. The Duplass Brothers very quickly raise the stakes, bringing all the characters together on a bridge after a car crash during which Jeff jumps off the bridge into the water and saves a young family. All the while, they maintain their commitment to their shaky camera, lo-fi aesthetic, which juxtaposed against Jeff’s act or heroism comes off as self-aware commentary on all the characters and films they created previously, or a direct response to the criticism that nothing happens in Mumblecore films.
Not everything works, particularly not Susan Sarandon as Jeff and Pat’s mother who spends most of the movie in a stuffy, non-descript office that feels like it belongs in another film, but for the most part, the prospect of the Duplass Brothers’ worldview afforded the chance to make Hollywood broad comedies and romantic comedies is an intriguing and fresh take on the material. Hopefully they can continue to grow by continuing to hone what worked about the real-feeling characters, emotions, and settings of their early low-budget work exhibited in The Puffy Chair and bringing that storytelling and visual aesthetic to the less personal mainstream work. The Duplass Brothers, simply by being willing to cast outside of themselves in their leading roles, have a willingness to expand their filmmaking to a broader appeal than their Mumblecore peers seem to exhibit, and the Mumblecore legacy could do worse than to have the Duplass Brothers’ comedies serve as the gateway into the more esoteric work.
Brad Becker-Parton is a film person living in Brooklyn. Follow him on Twitter; you’ll regret it during Knicks games.