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· 85 minutes
Directed by Jay Duplass
Written by Mark Duplass
· Mark Duplass
· Kathryn Aselton
· Rhett Wilkins
Screened at the 2005 BendFilm Festival
Ah, the road trip movie. The basic premise has been bounced around in many directions, and can still be successful if one is creative enough about it. It's a Mad Mad Mad Mad World is still one of my favorites, along with Anne Tyler's Breathing Lessons. Even the repulsive Road Trip had its moments. The Puffy Chair, directed by Jay Duplass and written by his brother, Mark, misses the mark just about every time it takes aim, however.
Josh Sagers' father's birthday is coming up, and Josh (Mark Duplass) has found the perfect gift: A big purple La-Z-Boy just like Dad had years ago. Josh found it on Ebay, and now it's only a matter of heading south from Maine, picking up the recliner, and continuing to Dad's house. Josh takes along his girlfriend Emily (Kathryn Aselton), with whom he is having some relational difficulties. And to Emily's chagrin, their "romantic" twosome is spoiled when Josh's hippie brother Rhett (Rhett Wilkins) manages to invite himself along. Packed into Josh's van, there is little room for the character conflicts that rise to the surface, and by the time they reach Dad's house, Josh has learned a few things about life and love, and how difficult both can be at times.
The Puffy Chair has two main problems. The first is a story that is simply not very captivating. Once you've seen Road Trip et al, this production has nothing really new to offer. This doesn't mean it is devoid of anything amusing, but that the amusing moments do not grab us and hold on. There are such things as Josh's confrontation with the Ebay seller, Rhett's single-day marriage to a woman he meets in the theater, and Josh's attempt to secure a hotel room that all produce chuckles, but the Brothers Duplass do not dig very deep in their attempts to mine the potential humor and/or poignancy in these moments. The conversations lack any lasting zing, or even any memorable lines.
And within those situations, the supposedly quirky supporting characters themselves fall short. When I think of amusing caricatures in road trip films, a much higher standard has already been set by Joyce Van Patten and Eileen Heckart in Breathing Lessons, and (much as I hate to admit it) Tom Green in Road Trip.
Finally, I won't reveal the ending, but it does leave us wondering just what we've learned about life. The conclusion Josh reaches does not uplift, inspire, encourage, or even give much direction for a future. I really feel that a movie, no matter how accomplished, ultimately wastes my time if the final summation of what I've gained is: "Oh."
The second big problem is Duplass' choice of delivery: The film looks every inch like a home video. Shaky camera movement, zero attention to lighting, and what appears to be a camera set on its unpredictable auto-focus all help make this production very unwatchable.
When I screened this film at BendFilm, during the Q&A time, Duplass stated that this is how he likes to make his films: Very off-the-cuff, little rehearsal, no pre-planning on the camera’s moves, and no professional lighting scheme. He touted his belief that if one is telling a gripping story, the audience will overlook the technical side and be drawn in. But it is precisely the reverse of that hypothesis that filmmakers have spent the last century proving.
Some of the earliest movies were basically plays on film. A camera was set up to incorporate the entire scene, and the play commenced. Film audiences quickly became bored. So editing was added. Then, for greater impact, Edwin S. Porter introduced the close-up in Life of an American Fireman. Technicians have spent decades crafting lenses for crisp focus, and studying lighting schemes for ideal illumination. Editing has been refined. Film stock has been constantly upgraded. All in the service of satisfying an increasingly dissatisfied audience. And apparently all so Duplass can throw that storehouse of knowledge away.
It's true that some very gripping movies are still watched despite their technical shortcomings. Movies like Citizen Kane and It's a Wonderful Life carry a burden of decaying film stock, naive editing, and ancient sound recording techniques that would potentially turn audiences off. But they bear up well because their stories are undeniably strong and captivating. The Puffy Chair may be cute and occasionally amusing, but it is not a strong story, and it gets crushed under the lazy production values. There is a reason they have gaffers and focus pullers in Hollywood.
The Puffy Chair is an indie production currently making the rounds of Sundance, BendFilm, and other festivals. As such, I respect the fact that an enterprising young man has assembled cast, crew, and equipment and done the labor of creating a film. But this film belongs in the director’s private collection of learning experiences, not at an international independent film festival.