Funny guy with a serious talent

The director of this ultra-low-budget indie comedy is one to watch

<strong>Funny Ha Ha (15)</stron

In the world of American independent cinema, there's low-budget and then there's Funny Ha Ha. This thoroughly beguiling comedy-drama, better described as funny peculiar, was shot on 16mm film for $50,000, which is less than the average Hollywood production spends on dental floss. There is no music, the sound mix is erratic, the wonderful cast is largely made up of non-professionals, and the credits are handwritten on paper. It takes you a minute to realise how cheap the film is, and then another minute to forget about the budget and become absorbed in the rich romantic imbroglios unravelling on screen.

Marnie (Kate Dollenmayer) is a 23-year-old Boston graduate who is, in the words of a friend, "just bopping along". We first meet her when she is refused service at a tattoo parlour for being too drunk. She takes this rejection to heart - later she refers to herself as a "fallen woman", plumps for coffee over beer on her birthday, and tries to persuade a friend to relieve her of the six-pack in the fridge. Booze isn't her biggest problem, though. That honour goes to Alex (Christian Rudder), an old school chum on whom she has a crush.

When it comes to relationships, Marnie is in free fall. She makes the first move with a stranger at a party, but the encounter dissolves into a duet of hemming and hawing. Then she is kissed by her pal Dave (Myles Paige), with whom she has been discussing her feelings for Alex. Finally, her friendship with Alex shows signs of progressing to something more intimate. So relaxed does she feel in his company that she's soon impersonating a lactating cow for his amusement. Well, we've all been there. The inevitable letdown follows, though Alex should earn top marks for unpredictability in the way he disappoints Marnie.

The one person to benefit from this is the gangly Mitchell, a former colleague of Marnie's who now thinks the field is clear for him to make a move on her. He is played by the film's 31-year-old writer/director/editor, Andrew Bujalski, who claims he cast himself only because he knew he wouldn't demand a fee.

It would add variety if I could report there was one thing at which Bujalski doesn't excel, but actually he is an appealing clown, and his scenes with the superb Dollenmayer rate highly on the cringe-o-meter without eclipsing the characters' essential joyfulness. The couple's evening at a Chinese restaurant, during which they struggle to change the subject after Marnie rebuffs Mitchell for the second time, is almost as excruciating as cinema's greatest ever bad date, which is also set in a Chinese restaurant, from Mike Leigh's Bleak Moments (1971).

Funny Ha Ha has an improvisatory looseness that may remind you of Leigh; there are traces, too, of John Cassavetes, Henry Jaglom and Woody Allen in Bujalski's techniques, as well as in what tickles him. But it is his gift for understatement that makes the film so bracing. When several of the characters meet unexpectedly at a supermarket, in what would be a confrontation if only they were brave enough to air their grievances, you appreciate how neatly Bujalski has woven together the loose plot strands.

These people, with their unmade beds, torn jeans and ill-defined jobs, communicate in incomplete or evasive sentences - if they have a catchphrase, it is: "Just, uh, like, whatever." Bujalski, on the other hand, is always on the ball. You have to pay close attention to catch some of the most revealing details here, such as the way Mitchell quietly downgrades his hope of "going out" with Marnie to one of merely "hanging out" with her when she expressly vetoes the former.

The picture was made five years ago, but is only now being released in Britain after attracting a devoted following on the US college circuit. Bujalski's equally brilliant follow-up, Mutual Appreciation, opens here in May, and takes us deeper into the same, bitter-sweet world. Check him out. If he's not one of the brightest talents of the decade then I'm a lactating cow.

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Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards and is Film Critic in Residence at Falmouth University.

This article first appeared in the 19 March 2007 issue of the New Statesman, Trident: Why Brown went to war with Labour