To begin on a personal note, my limited exposure to the mumblecore movement has left me with unfavorable impressions. The self-important ideas of films like Tiny Furniture, as well as their one-note characters, which seem to appeal exclusively to over-privileged but drifting post-graduates, aren’t particularly insightful from my point of view. If the life of you or your best friend isn’t precisely like the life of the character on screen, there is very little to take away. Aesthetically, they range from amateurish to ordinary, and the daring works, such as Andrew Bujalski’s Computer Chess, don’t have the writing to provide any ends for the means.
South By Southwest’s 2005 Audience Award winner, The Puffy Chair, lacks the aesthetic intrigue but manages to capture far more universal sentiments with far more intricately crafted characters. At once a road movie and a romantic comedy, The Puffy Chair has deeper value as a well-sketched examination of relationships that have been comfortable so long that their lack of direction becomes uncomfortable that touches on family dynamics and the frugality of 20-something post-graduates. There are a few unnecessary detours and moments of inconsistency, but by the end, even the more outrageous moments have contributed to startlingly realistic realizations.
At the film’s beginning, Josh (Mark Duplass) makes himself a difficult man to sympathize with. Anyone who answers the phone with “what’s up motherfucker” and ignores his girlfriend to make jokes about penis size on the phone with a friend is immediately positioned as precisely the man-child that is so often depicted but never truly examined in countless films today. His girlfriend Emily is no better; anyone who would swipe the dishes off of the table because of the above needs a bit more self-control. But by establishing their overgrown adolescence immediately, the Duplass Brothers clear the rest of the movie to examine how these types of people function in society.
The two head out on a road-trip to pick up a chair that Josh found on eBay for his father’s birthday, and along the way the way, a stop at the house of Josh’s brother, Rhett, sees their journey become a three-person trip. We see the lengths that Josh is willing to go to save $10 and how well that does or does not work out, and we sense an unspoken tension between Josh and Emily regarding how much time they spend alone together, and we also get the feeling that what Josh sees as a comfortable relationship is something that Emily sees as a directionless one.
Rhett’s role in the story is mostly as a placeholder, an object that allows Josh to broadcast his unromantic ideas that Emily will criticize him for. An interruption that sees Rhett getting married comes out of nowhere and is too lengthy for what essentially surmounts to a plot trigger, and Rhett does not grow through the change. He joins Josh and Emily early, but he is the only one who does not change and the one who we get to know least. The film would play almost exactly the same without him, just 10 minutes shorter.
What Rhett lacks, however, Josh and Emily make up for. At times, Emily can be too high-maintenance, but she is acutely aware of who she is. 26 years old, in a long-term relationship, and wanting to see it go somewhere; she knows what she wants in life. Josh, on the other hand, seems to coast day-by-day, booking bands for a living but seeming to have few ties. He isn’t a man-child, though; he can take care of himself, and he demonstrates maturity and control through his road-trips rough turns that make it easy to understand what Emily sees in him.
Still, there is a quarter-life crisis quietly in the background. Where this journey, much more about love and family than post-grad anxiety and financial status ultimately goes pulls no punches. The Duplass Brothers’ great writing turns this otherwise ordinary story into a deeply heartfelt one without being either melodramatic or overly sentimental. Sometimes, we see again and again, things—all sorts of things, from finances to planning to relationships—don’t work out.