Thursday, June 4, 2015

No Pain, No Gain: Andrew Bujalski's Results

Kevin Corrigan and Cobie Smulders in Results.

It’s no secret that talented directors who work on big studio movies often have to go against their personal tastes and instincts in order to accommodate the demands of their bosses, who have their own ideas about what a movie has to include in order to be salable. The same is sometimes true of well-known indie directors, even those who work on a smaller scale on very personal material, if their recent work has generated more good reviews than box office revenue. Noah Baumbach’s recent While We’re Young stars Ben Stiller as a documentary filmmaker whose creative crisis, which manifests itself in his ability to complete his sprawling, ten-years-in-the-making magnum opus, is all mixed up with his fear of growing older and losing his freshness and edge. For its first two-thirds, the movie offers a spiky, original satirical take on a particular form of contemporary anxiety, but it loses its way in the last half hour—partly because Baumbach goes soft on his hero, but also because the tone goes haywire in a slapstick climax that feels as if it parts of it might have been included to provide footage for the trailer, in the hope that it might trick some people into thinking they were getting something a little less like The Squid and the Whale and a little more like Along Came Polly.

The writer-director Andrew Bujalski doesn’t show any inclination for playing this game; he certainly doesn’t have any knack for it. His new feature, Results, has been called a “rom-com,” in some cases by reviewers complaining that it’s a pretty misbegotten excuse for a rom-com. It’s true that Results doesn’t play by the usual rules of that genre, but I don’t think that’s due to incompetence, or that Bujalski is trying to “subvert” the genre either. I think he’s indifferent to genre. Results starts out with a man in a fish-out-of-water situation: Danny (Kevin Corrigan), a suddenly rich, recently divorced New Yorker who finds himself in Austin and, looking to somehow reboot his life (and end his loneliness) takes out a gym membership. This brings him into contact with two people with whom he has nothing in common: Trevor (Guy Pearce), the owner of the gym, and Kat (Cobie Smulders), a tightly wound trainer whose anger issues are exacerbated by the fact that she’s heading towards thirty without ever having had “a real job” or “a real boyfriend.”

One thing leads to another, and then another and then another, and by the end of the movie, two of these characters are in love. So far as Bujalski is concerned, if an outline that vague makes you feel entitled to have certain expectations about how the movie should play out, that’s your problem. This is the fifth feature film he’s directed in ten years, and his work still gives you the feeling that he’s feeling his way along, discovering the characters in the same way the audience does, observing them as they stumble along, finding their way by means of trial and error. The proof that this is not an affectation is that Bujalski’s movies can drive you up the wall: when his method works, his style feels pleasingly unforced, but when it doesn’t, it can just seem half-baked. But for all its lulls and despite its underpopulated, visually undistinguished look, Results has the charm of a movie where you can’t guess what’s going to happen next from scene to scene.

Cobie Smulders and Guy Pearce in Results.

Corrigan’s Danny is the soul of the movie. This ruddy-faced, patchy-haired, middle-aged guy, who has just inherited a fortune from a mother he barely knew—he didn’t even know that she’d married into money—chooses a rented house in Austin to be his new command center and sets about trying to find a new life for himself by throwing his money around and introducing himself to strangers. (Deciding that a pet would be a good thing to have, he goes to his computer and types, “I will pay $200 for a good healthy feline.” In much the same spirit, he befriends a party-hearty lawyer—Giovanni Ribisi—by sidling up to him in a jazz club and asking if he’s a pot dealer.) Although Corrigan works pretty steadily as a character actor, this is the closest I’ve seen him placed at the center of one since the mid-90s, when he starred in Matthew Harrison’s Kicked in the Head and had plum roles in such indie films as Bandwagon and Nicole Holofcener’s Walking and Talking (where he played the video store clerk whose budding romance with Catherine Keener stops on a dime when he learns that she routinely refers to him as “the ugly guy” when she’s talking to her friends.)

It should happen more often. Danny calls himself “pudgy and mellow,” and that’s not inaccurate, though there’s a trace of New York aggressiveness built into him that keeps things between him and his new friends just a little off-balance. They recognize it as benign, but they often don’t know what to make of him. (Corrigan is a very New York type; his casual conversation often sounds like someone doing a Christopher Walken impression.) When he decides to court Kat, he summons her to his home, after dark, for a nocturnal personal training session, then reveals that they’re on a date, complete with a small jazz combo playing in his house and a famous chef prepared to take their order. The way Corrigan and Smulders play the scene, it’s easy to appreciate both the daft sweetness of his gesture and her outrage at how “inappropriate” it all is. (Since he’s gotten her to the date under false pretenses, he’s naturally still paying for her time.) Corrigan also has a scene with his Danny’s ex-wife—played by Corrigan’s own wife. Elizabeth Berridge, who played Mozart’s wife in Amadeus—that deepens the ironies of the central relationships, relationships that all the parties involved find frustrating and confusing but that they all get something out of. Danny and his ex-wife make each other miserable, but he can relax a little when he’s with her; he doesn’t like her, but he gets her, and he knows where he stands with her.

I suspect that any director could get gold out of Kevin Corrigan just by taking the all-important step of casting him. Getting gold out of Guy Pearce is another matter, and Bujalski’s special touch shows best in the way Pearce’s character slowly unfolds, baring his heart to the audience in a way that’s touching without ever smarmy. (Okay, maybe the shots of him alone in bed, cuddling his dog, are a bit close to the line.) In a conventional rom-com, the unimaginative, physically super-fit Trevor would be the villain to be overcome, the handsome stud who serves as a reminder that rock-hard calves and abs aren’t everything. He uses his body threateningly just once, when, feeling confused and protective of Kat, he puts Danny in a hammerlock; he quickly apologizes for it, though. He’s more himself when Danny orders him to get out of house, and Trevor, his face showing how badly his feelings are hurt, murmurs Danny’s words back to him in a tone that’s not simply boyish but downright childish. Results is Bujalski’s second feature in color, which means it’s a little easier on the eyes than his earlier films in fuzzy-looking black and white. The paradoxical side effect is that he’s likely to get fewer points for being a pure, low-budget film artists than he did for such movies as Funny Ha Ha and Mutual Appreciation—which had all the visual qualities of a sonogram photo—even though all his films have had pretty much the same strengths in weaknesses, in about the same proportions. But a director who can use Guy Pearce to illuminate the soul of an aging meathead gym owner does have his own brand of movie magic. Like all Bujalski’s movies, Results has its, whatdyacallit, longueurs. Smulders’s Kat would instruct you to power through them.

– Phil Dyess-Nugent is a freelance writer living in Texas. He has contributed to The A.V. ClubHitFlixNerveHiLobrow, and the New Orleans Times-Picayune, among other publications.

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