A Little Charm Can Only Get So Far
Funny Ha Ha – If you’ve ever listened to a recording of yourself having a conversation, you’ve more than likely noticed with some degree of horror all of the verbal tics and filler that stuff up the cracks in your speech. Funny Ha Ha is a character study about an underemployed postcollegiate young woman named Marnie, but there isn’t much in the way of plot or arc. Instead, writer/director Andrew Bujalski and his cast of amateur actors give us a window into the inner lives of Marnie and her constellation of similarly directionless friends and acquaintances via the subtext of their fragmented language and subtly passive-aggressive behavior.
Marnie is a person who is entirely at the mercy of her kindness and generosity, allowing people to walk all over her as she clumsily attempts to mask her emotions for the sake of others and mutters a perpetual stream of apologies. Her fear of confrontation and rejection runs so deep that she’s practically straitjacketed her id lest anything ever “get weird.” Meanwhile, her submerged desires are so transparent that everyone around her knows exactly what she’s thinking, but since they share most of the same social dysfunctions, they never say exactly what they mean either. Since she is beautiful, witty, cool and endlessly accomodating, she is surrounded by people who like her, and more than a few men who nurse futile crushes on her. Sometimes she seems to be in denial about this but more often she seems overwhelmed by possibility and retreats into self-sabotaging behavior such as pining for the most unavailable man that she knows and keeping her friendships superficial and emotionally distant.
Funny Ha Ha is particularly interesting to me in contrast with Todd Holland and Bryan Fuller’s shortlived television series Wonderfalls, which I recently viewed in its entirety on dvd. Wonderfalls is also about an underemployed recent college graduate who isn’t quite sure what to make of her life and just so happens to be a funny, pretty, willowy brunette. The similarities mostly end there, though. Whereas Marnie is only occasionally articulate, Wonderfalls‘ Jaye Tyler seems overly impressed by her own cleverness and talent for sarcasm to the degree that it often alienates those around her. (See also: Lorelai Gilmore.) She’s built up her own misanthropic self-mythology to the point that she’s come to view her most aggravating flaws – a tendency for condescension, rudeness, selfabsorbtion, laziness, and a dismissive attitude towards anyone who can function and thrive in the “real world” – as being strengths worthy of celebration. She’s from an upper middle class family and graduated from an Ivy League school, but she’s strangely content living in a trailer park and working in a tourist-trap gift shop. She’s smart and talented, but lacks ambition and fears effort. She’s rejecting her privilege, but not for any moral or intellectual reason. She’s just scared and immature and slumming it out until something comes along and happens to her.
Wonderfalls‘ central gimmick is that Jaye interacts with mass-produced representations of animals who offer her practical and challenging advice that forces her to step outside of herself and discover her potential for change and capacity for helping others. The nature of the talking animals is wisely kept vague, but I choose to interpret it as simply being a manifestation of the disassociated rational part of herself that she barely acknowledges as being within her. Each episode is built around a different animal trinket and set up so that the episodes can more or less write themselves around this conceit, but the story actually would have been a lot better if it had been a executed as selfcontained movie. After the first three episodes, the program becomes repetitive and increasingly contrived. If the series was allowed to continue, I’m not confident that it would have held up, mainly because as Jaye becomes less selfabsorbed and more generous, the basic tension in the narrative would dissipate. The beginning of Jaye’s transformation is very engaging, but I suspect that the closer the character could get to the end result, the show would become increasingly dull and selfrighteous.
Funny Ha Ha would actually make more sense as an ongoing story, since it is already a series of vingnettes that begin and end abruptly. Though the film says everything that it needed to, the lead and supporting characters have plenty of room for growth and the situations are kept open-ended enough for indefinite continuation. If I was in charge of original programming at HBO, I would be throwing bags of cash at Bujalski and his cast to convince them to turn the movie into a series that could take the place of the departing Six Feet Under.
Though I recognize more from my own lived experience in Funny Ha Ha, Wonderfalls is a far more devasting narrative for me, primarily because I see so much of the worst in myself in Jaye Tyler. The arrogance, the sense of entitlement, the selfdefeating laziness – I couldn’t help but cringe constantly from identification. In spite of the fact that show is light, goofy, and highly stylized in a post-Joss Whedon sort of way, making my way through the episodes was actually a very difficult task since I would get bummed out after viewing every episode and put off watching the next installment for a few days. Funny Ha Ha is technically more downbeat (though it never quite comes off as melancholy, thankfully), but since I’m mostly recognizing my friends and acquaintances in its story rather than myself (Marnie is like a composite of at least six female friends that I’ve had over the years), it brings out my affection and sympathy for those types of people rather than touch on any of my own insecurities.
Charlotte Hatherley “Rescue Plan” – In one of the most amusing and endearing scenes in Funny Ha Ha, Marnie writes out of list of things to do – go a month without drinking, make friends with a co-worker, spend more time outdoors, learn how to play chess, some loosely defined “fitness initiative!!” That is nicely echoed in the lyrics of this song, as Charlotte Hatherley (yet another clever, pretty, willowy brunette!) sings about her own list of list of resolutions, which she calls a “rescue plan” to “guarantee” a change in herself. To Marnie’s credit, she actually goes out and makes a solid attempt to do everything on her list. It seems like a more healthy and realistic ap
proach to life than the more dramatic gestures of Jaye Tyler. It’s possible that more longterm change can result from a confluence of minor alterations of lifestyle and daily routine than from more radical steps that require a lot more energy and commitment, thus allowing for a greater opportunity for frustration and failure.
“Rescue Plan” is taken from Hatherley’s debut album, which remains one of my favorite records of the past five months. (It was released in the UK sometime in 2004, but I never heard it until January.) It’s not one of the most immediate songs on the record – in terms of instant likeability, it is difficult to compete with the singles “Kim Wilde” and “Bastardo,” and the epic “Stop” sounds like all the best indie rock of the 90s melted into a puddle – but it has a casual, easygoing charm that suits its lyrics rather well. I hadn’t fully paid attention to the words until just recently, but I had already associated the track with a mixture of doubt and cautious optimism. The arrangement and guitar playing on this song is absolutely lovely, but easily overlooked and underrated since it isn’t particularly flashy or fashionable. This is true for most everything on Hatherley’s record, which often seems like a love letter to the indie and alt rock of the 90s from a person who clearly loved Veruca Salt without any “guilty pleasure” baggage and seems to be one of the rare musicians who is more influenced by the songs on The Bends that weren’t gentle power ballads. (Click here to buy Charlotte Hatherley’s album from Double Dragon. Click here to buy the Wonderfalls dvd set from Amazon. Funny Ha Ha is currently playing at the Cinema Village in NYC, and will be airing on the Sundance Channel on 5/20 at 2 PM, 5/25 at 6:30 PM, and 5/28 at 7:30 PM.)