Brothers Mark and Jay Duplass made one of the foundational movies of the so-called “mumblecore” movement with 2005’s The Puffy Chair, and their follow-up, Baghead, finds them struggling to break out of what’s become a somewhat stifling and limiting label. Baghead bears many of the hallmarks of mumblecore—it’s about relationships among intelligent but inarticulate 20-somethings, it’s shot in a rough, hand-held style, it’s plotted loosely and simply—but it also aspires to something more, making a meta-commentary on the indie-film world and even functioning as a sort of low-grade horror movie.
It’s hard to pull all that off in 81 minutes, and the Duplasses don’t quite make it work. But as with The Puffy Chair, they demonstrate a flair for naturalistic depictions of relationships, as well as the passive-aggressive ways that friends and lovers can cut each other down without even meaning to or realizing it.
Baghead is best in its first half, when it’s just about a group of four friends trying to escape the ruts their lives have become. Matt (Ross Partridge), Chad (Steve Zissis), Michelle (Greta Gerwig) and Catherine (Elise Muller) are all aspiring actors who’ve done little more than background work in feature films, and all seem just a tad too self-involved and lazy to actually kick-start their careers. After sitting through a particularly painful screening at a local film festival, they decide that if the director of that movie, an acquaintance of Matt’s, can do it, then so can they.
So the four retire to Chad’s uncle’s cabin in the mountains, where they of course spend more time bickering and maneuvering through romantic entanglements than they do coming up with ideas for the script they’re allegedly writing. The Duplasses set up a Woody Allen-esque romantic roundelay: Catherine is in love with on-and-off boyfriend Matt, despite their recent “off” status; Matt is intrigued by the younger Michelle, who is clearly into him; Chad, however, is totally smitten with Michelle, even though she sees him as just a friend. No one communicates their feelings well, or even at all, and the apparent arrival in the woods of a mysterious stranger wearing a paper bag on his head only complicates things.
The characters don’t exactly take the threat seriously at first, instead using it as an excuse to snipe at each other some more, and so there isn’t a whole lot of suspense or menace until the film’s climax, at which point you’ll probably already have figured out what’s going on. Plot-wise, Baghead is fairly predictable, and its horror elements are all easily recognizable from any number of people-trapped-in-the-woods movies (the phone goes dead, the car won’t start, people keep mysteriously disappearing). But what the Duplasses and the appealing cast members do around those elements is what makes the movie worthwhile.
There’s an ever-present desperation to the way these people seek out both companionship and artistic success, never quite able to overcome the inertia of their lives to grab what they really want. In the end, it takes a potentially homicidal maniac in the woods to drive them to express their feelings or create something valuable, and even then it’s almost by accident. Like the characters in the more comedic, laid-back The Puffy Chair, the people here simultaneously want to achieve established, adult lives while still often behaving like petulant children.
That behavior can get a little tiresome, although the Duplasses do well to keep the characters likable even as they slouch through their lives (and, possibly, their deaths). Baghead feels very much like a transitional movie, with lots of traditional Hollywood structure grafted onto a ramshackle relationship dramedy, and its parts don’t always fit together smoothly. But as a sign of things to come, it shows that the Duplasses definitely have the talent and ambition to move out of that mumblecore box into something more accessible and universal.