Mumblecore was a movement so modest, even its originators didn’t realise it was happening. A loose assortment of semi-improvised comedy-dramas concerned with the love lives of unfocused twentysomethings, mumblecore occupied a budgetary substratum several notches below shoestring. But cheap is not necessarily shoddy, a shambolic surface no indicator of the engineering beneath. So it was with the films of Andrew Bujalski (Funny Ha Ha), Aaron Katz (Quiet City), Joe Swanberg (Hannah Takes the Stairs) and others: the movies gleamed with an emotional sophistication that put script-doctored Hollywood equivalents to shame.
The mainstream took note. It’s my belief that the baggy comedies of Judd Apatow (Knocked Up, Funny People) owe mumblecore a debt as yet unacknowledged. And Noah Baumbach’s Greenberg, one of the richest US films of the past decade, tipped its hat by casting in major roles the movement’s figureheads, Greta Gerwig and Mark Duplass – the Audrey Hepburn and Cary Grant of mumblecore (if you can picture Grant in tracksuit trousers and a faded tee). Duplass is also a film-maker: with his brother Jay he has pursued the mumblecore ethos, from The Puffy Chair (budget: $15,480; stars: Duplass and chums) to Jeff Who Lives at Home (budget: $10m; stars: Susan Sarandon, Jason Segel). But he’s still a generous, playful actor, as he proves in Your Sister’s Sister, a tight comedy from his mumblecore alumna Lynn Shelton. In her last film, Humpday, she cast Duplass as a straight man building up to having sex with his best (male) friend as a kind of macho dare. Fresh embarrassments await him this time.
Duplass plays Jack, first seen at an anniversary memorial in Seattle where he rails against the whitewashing of the dead man’s life. Uh-oh: troublemaker. Well, perhaps. But he is also the grieving brother – still not yet resigned, a year on, to the death of his sibling, Tom. His devoted friend, Iris (Emily Blunt), whose impulsive, rapturous laugh has healing properties, encourages him to decompress at her family’s cabin on the San Juan Islands (off the coast of Washington state). When Jack arrives late one night, he finds Iris’s sister, Hannah (Rosemarie DeWitt), padding around in her underwear. “Complications ensue” would be an inadequate summary of what happens next.
As Humpday demonstrated, Shelton is a dab hand at detecting the pulse of conversational awkwardness, however faint, so it’s no surprise that she renders excruciating the chasm between Hannah (brittle, nibbling dried banana, newly separated from her girlfriend) and Jack (goofy, carnivorous, ready to chance his arm – sexually speaking). Knocking back a few shots creates a different strain of discomfort and soon the curiosity in Humpday towards people having sex for reasons other than desire is approached from a new angle. Our prediction that Iris is bound to turn up (she does) is made tantalising by our faith in Shelton to knock the situation out of the realm of farce (ditto).
In fact, Your Sister’s Sister incorporates variations on the country-house drama and a jokey nod toward the whodunnit, with Jack turning detective and stumbling upon his own delirious version of the smoking gun. The camera wobbles just enough to remind us that we’re watching a film in which the actors used phone boxes for trailers, if they had trailers at all, while the soundtrack dial is turned to the “generic indie strumming” setting with a side order of wind chimes for moments of mystery. But the film is too skillful to be affected adversely by these mannerisms. Shelton has developed a new and impressive aptitude for discreet slapstick, like the moment when Jack and Iris both try to gesture to Hannah without the other’s knowledge. Cutaways to the pastoral, mist-shrouded surroundings lend the comedy a serene tint.
The casting solicits approving noises from the audience before anything much has happened. Duplass is the epitome of slackerhood: he sports a permanent bedhead, not to mention a bedface, a bedbody, a bedsoul. How inspired of Shelton to pair him with Blunt and DeWitt, who are all sharp edges and crisply delicious line readings where he is a drawling blur. No wonder she lists her actors as “creative consultants”. The film depends for its emotional effects on our belief in Iris’s fondness for Hannah and in the vivid affection between Iris and Jack, even before the glorious monologue in which he itemises her typical boyfriend (“Swoopy hair, skinny jeans, Converses with no laces”), and analyses her pattern of killing off relationships before the second weekend. It’s the attention to detail available only to a man who hopes he might get a chance to buck the trend.
The movie loses a little confidence in its later scenes. I can’t be the only person to feel that a director has thrown in the towel when a pent-up character smashes an inanimate object. But the inconclusive ending is a magical fit for a film that belongs to the mumblecore tradition of al dente cinema: never knowingly overdone.