Five Reasons To Give Mumblecore A Chance

by Andrew Osborne

Mark Duplass doesn’t classify the films he’s co-directed with his brother (including this week’s Jeff, Who Lives At Home and The Do-Deca-Pentathlon, which premiered at the SXSW Film Festival on March 11) as “mumblecore”.

“It was just a tag that somebody started calling our movies,” he explains – and by our, he means not just he and his brother, but also a new generation of independent filmmakers including Andrew Bujalski (Beeswax), Lynn Shelton (Humpday) and Joe Swanberg (Hannah Takes The Stairs), who sometimes appear as actors in one another’s projects.

“I don’t have a problem with people using tags in the press to help group things,” Duplass clarifies, though he finds the term mumblecore “a bit reductive.  But more importantly, it sounds hoity-toity and exclusionary…I want to invite everybody to see my movies.”

In that spirit, here are five reasons to see Jeff, Who Lives At HomeThe Do-Deca-Pentathlon and other films rightly or wrongly branded with the “M” word.

1. “Mumblecore” is pretty much just a synonym for “independent.”

“The Dogme movement, those guys created it,” Duplass says, referring to the 1995 manifesto concocted by Danish filmmakers Lars Von Trier (Breaking the Waves, Melancholia) and Thomas Vinterburg (The Celebration).  The cinematic “vow of chastity” was an attempt to counter the cultural dominance of high concept, test-marketed, CGI-drenched mainstream fare with a lo-fi aesthetic emphasizing a more naturalistic vision of how actual humans interact and behave.  Yet while digital technology has enabled a new generation of DIY filmmakers to embrace the Dogme model, it’s really just the latest incarnation of a sensibility variously influenced by everything from Italian Neorealism to the work of American indie touchstones like John Cassavetes and Robert Altman – and that observational, fly-on-the-wall artistic vision is the true unifying through line in the work of directors like Bujalski, Shelton, Swanberg and the Duplass brothers, whether the productions are low-budget festival bait or major studio releases like Jeff, Who Lives At Home.

2.  It’s nice to get a break from stories based on toys and robots.

Very few of us encounter vampires, hostile extraterrestrials or serial killers in our day-to-day lives, but you wouldn’t know it from the endless stories about them on TV and movie screens.  On the other hand, “mumblecore’s” focus on believable characters and relationships often yields relatably funny and poignant moments that big-budget blockbusters can’t match.  For example, The Do-Deca and Jeff both hinge on the familiar yet complicated family dynamics fueling sibling rivalry, midlife crisis and marital discontent (with enough laugh-out-loud humor to make even the most painful moments go down easy).

3.  Big shot Hollywood actors dig it, too.

On the other hand, it’s not like Hollywood completely shies away from solid relationship-based stories.  Duplass is quick to note there’s plenty of good mainstream filmmaking out there, and he’s doing his best to contribute more, aided by stars eager to dive deep into nuanced, three-dimensional characters.  In Jeff’s fractious family unit, Jason Segel plays a realistically fleshed-out version of that familiar comedy staple, the slacker manchild, while Ed Helms is more sympathetic than antagonistic in the role of his alpha (minus) brother.  Meanwhile, bucking the trend of older actresses only finding good roles on television, Susan Sarandon shines as the film’s patient but frustrated matriarch, while Judy Greer follows up her work in The Descendants with another fine turn as a wife in a marriage drifting perilously close to the rocks.

4. Relaxing, not exhausting

One of the knocks against “mumblecore” is that the pace can seem meandering to viewers weened on rat-a-tat sitcom dialogue, machine-tooled three-act formulas and rapid-fire editing.  And while it’s true that films by directors like the Duplass brothers often feature offbeat rhythms and plot twists (like The Do-Deca’s secret 25-event competition between brothers over the course of a family reunion), the material likewise doesn’t pummel viewers with meaningless sensation or beat them over the head with cynical deus ex machinas.  Even in Jeff, where the stoned protagonist bases his magical thinking on M. Night Shyamalan’s Signs (while desperately waiting for cosmic forces to guide him to his own Hollywood ending), the coincidences are believable and the outcomes feel earned.

5. And, well…sex.

Finally, if none of the arguments above inspire you to check out “mumblecore,” it’s worth noting that the naturalism and emotional nakedness associated with the sub-genre often carries over to depictions of physical nakedness as well.  But I won’t tell you which films by which of the directors above (or fellow travelers like Noah Baumbach and Nicole Holofcener) feature nudity – let alone which stripped down moments feature characters you actually want to see topless.  Instead, just dive in, take chances, and don’t fear the “M” word.

(And for the Nerve version of the article, click here!)

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