As any Publishers Clearing House winner can attest: Dreams do come true! I've been hoping for two years that people who don't write about movies or stalk them at film festivals would get to experience the wonderful vagaries of Andrew Bujalski's ''Funny Ha Ha," which, after languishing who knows where, finally opens today at the Coolidge, while his second film just played at last week's Independent Film Festival of Boston.
It's both obvious and inexplicable why the release of ''Funny Ha Ha" went nowhere for so long. Obvious: The film lacks polish. Inexplicable: That's part of its charm. (Bujalski has a bracingly unadorned style, and Matthias Grunsky's handheld photography is actually quite lovely.) Obvious: The cast is full of amateurs, especially Kate Dollenmayer, the woman playing Marnie, the film's heroine. Inexplicable: She is also one of the most simply complicated movie characters I've ever seen.
Marnie is 23, lives in the post-college, crypto-slacker ghettos of Allston, and is unmoored, unambitious, and freshly fired from a mediocre office job. She prefers to wear T-shirts and is a sweetly impulsive drunk. Her to-do list consists of such goals as ''become a better cook," ''go to museums," and, my favorite, ''spend more time outside." And the Scarlett Johansson of ''Lost in Translation" and Anna Karina in the Jean-Luc Godard movie of your choice are her kindred spirits.
But, honestly, Marnie isn't that fancy. Dollenmayer acts with refreshing understatement, and there's eloquence in her gracelessness. You've borrowed this girl's literature notes back in college, you've tried to pick her up once at a party, you've seen her staring into space alone on her front stoop. She's like a lot of upbeat people with no immediate plans for the future and nothing glamorous in mind, and nearly everything about her life is a misalliance, particularly where romance is concerned.
One of the beauties of Bujalski's writing and directing is the way little slights resonate with Marnie. She has to hear from Rachel and Dave (Jennifer L. Schaper and Myles Paige) that Alex (Christian Rudder), her longstanding crush, has just broken up with his girlfriend. That's ridiculous: She just ran into him, and he didn't mention that at all. But, as ''Funny Ha Ha" illustrates with great accuracy, that's life.
Alex's sister, Susan (Lissa Patton Rudder), tells Marnie she should pursue Alex, who, in a humiliating and awkward moment, calls Marnie to say, politely, back off. But Alex is a burgeoning master of the mixed signal, saying they should talk some more about this, and also telling her about a job doing research for his uncle. Meanwhile, Marnie lets Mitchell (Bujalski), a painfully meek yet surprisingly direct co-worker at a temp gig she takes, think she has a boyfriend. She has no real interest in Mitchell but out of guilt -- or boredom -- keeps him around, anyway.
Bujalski's circle of characters and the social and romantic entanglements among them start to resemble the webs in Jane Austen and Edith Wharton, if either woman wrote for the post-collegiate Trader Joe's set. Marnie's life is less resolved than in Austen and far less tragic than in Wharton. (Whit Stillman's more poised and more self-conscious ''Metropolitan" comes to mind, too.)
Where class determined attraction in those books, good timing and personal taste dictate the pairings in ''Funny Ha Ha." So Alex's vagueness and passive-aggressive tactics make him a thoroughly modern love interest. And all the hypo-masculine, almost fey affect of this movie's males locates them on a small planet of halting and insecure man-boy stars such as Tobey Maguire and Jake Gyllenhaal. Half the appeal of pursuing such a man lies in waiting to see whether he'll ever declare himself.
''Funny Ha Ha" is a smartly observed, unpretentious, and unconventional comedy of manners -- or more properly, it's a comedy of mannerisms, for none of its addled characters seems capable of composing a thought without stopping along the way to consider it. During that phone call to Marnie, Alex says: ''I don't know. It's just. I mean. You know what I'm saying? It's just . . . a bad time for me."
I imagined my mother listening to all the inserted ''likes" and ''you knows" used here and asking with exasperation, ''Will they ever finish a thought?" But these characters' inarticulateness is perfect for their inchoate feelings. Bujalski's is one of the first movies to put such sensitive and true characters on screen in all their imperfections. He deserves a good, long career, something that returns us to what took so long for it to get started -- the craven distributors and exhibitors of the world. To them, there's this to say: To ignore him is to ignore the stammering voice of a generation.
Wesley Morris can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.