Mumblecore's dithering heights
The no-budget independent film movement known as "Mumblecore" has been getting a lot of press lately, which most likely means it's over. That may be just as well. The label was always a derisive joke to the gaggle of filmmakers lumped under it - Andrew Bujalski, of "Funny Ha Ha" and "Mutual Appreciation"; Mark and Jay Duplass, of "The Puffy Chair"; Joe Swanberg, of "LOL"; among others.
Anyway, categories are for movie critics, newspaper editors, and other parsers of popular culture, whereas the above films are united primarily by their flat gaze at rootless 20-somethings. Genuine cinematic movements usually try to say something. Mumblecore, passive-aggressive to a fault, prefers to watch.
Lucky, then, that Swanberg's new film, "Hannah Takes the Stairs," has someone worth watching. The hapless title character played by Greta Gerwig is smart and dorky-pretty, but her horizons don't extend very far beyond the view from her futon. Hannah is charmingly self-absorbed without the extenuating circumstance of self-knowledge. Above all, she's young. The movie forgives her for that and, with occasional misgivings, so do we.
Recently out of college, Hannah works for a Web start-up, or a TV production house, or something. It's immaterial. Her office place, a warren of cubicles and meeting rooms, is as generic as the undecorated apartments everyone in these movies lives in. Even the cast-off IKEA furnishings here back off from commitment.
The movie is about the mating habits of people who are both well-educated and profoundly unready for the world. Hannah starts out with a boyfriend, Mike, played by Mark Duplass with the fragile dude smugness of his character in "The Puffy Chair." Mike doesn't last long, though - not after he "upgrades" his life by quitting his job - and Hannah drifts to one of her co-workers, Paul (Bujalski), a brainy, bespectacled teddy bear. They make an adorable couple, yakking their way toward emotional intimacy without ever quite achieving it.
What does Hannah want, exactly, besides someone with whom she can play a trumpet duet of "The 1812 Overture" in the bathtub? (It's that kind of movie.) She wants what all the characters want - a lover who can make her "happy," which really means comfortable in her own skin. It almost doesn't matter whether that's Mike or Paul or Paul's courtly best friend, Matt (Kent Osborne), just as long as he holds out the possibility of passion without any of the risk.
"I don't like things that are explicitly about what they are," Hannah says at one point, effortlessly drawing the line between living her life and considering it from afar. The dialogue in "Hannah Takes the Stairs" has been largely improvised by the cast, yet Swanberg still imposes a filmmaker's personality on the material. Shot with intentionally banal anti-style - minimal soundtrack music, found sound, jitter-cam - the movie achieves a wisdom that's bigger than it seems.
Bit by bit, the romantic feedback loop that traps Hannah and her colleagues stands revealed, and there's the faintest hint she might see it, too - that she might someday leave the bathtub for the open sea. "Hannah" might be the most representative mumblecore movie of them all: a drama of a woman waiting and waiting for life to begin until she can't help realizing that it already has.