Mutual Appreciation, 2006
Mutual Appreciation is a casual affair. It isn’t going after any big points, and it’s pretty unimpressed with itself. Mutual Appreciation’s chief function might be that it could help people relax a little. The characters in Andrew Bujalksi’s second feature don’t invent problems for themselves where there aren’t any. They’re not obsessed with ambition or success or Turning Thirty. Too many young people in New York busy themselves with questionable careers, exhausting internships, time-consuming continuing-education courses, obligatory friendships, and overwrought relationships, until they don’t have any time to enjoy living in the greatest city in the world. The easy-going, remarkably mature characters in New York-based Mutual Appreciation aren’t scrambling around trying to make grown-ups of themselves by plugging themselves into institutions and chasing success. Time passes languidly in Bujalksi’s world, and its denizens are unique in the genre of post-college comedies because they’re not anxious about it. They could have our generation lightening up. I want this to be the movie that people my age identify with. I want my friends back.
Mutual Appreciation is so easily familiar with its characters that I feel almost friendly with them. Let me introduce you to my new pals: Justin Rice plays Alan with effortless likeability, an indy rock musician who’s just moved from Boston to New York. Rachel Clift plays Ellie with comfortable confidence, even in awkward scenes that overstay their welcome. Bujalski plays Lawrence, college T.A., boyfriend of Ellie, and old friend of Alan. Bujalksi is threatening to quit acting in his own pictures, but I doubt he’ll find an actor who brings the same genuine everydude quality that his polite, pockmarked mug adds to Mutual Appreciation.
Bujalksi’s films (his first was 2002’s Funny Ha Ha) draw regular comparisons to Cassavetes, Mike Leigh, and Eustache, but no one is pointing out that Mutual Appreciation is singular in its fascination with low-stakes human interaction in a way that sets it apart from those filmmakers, and from most any film of its kind. The emotional crises of Cassavetes, the class and survival concerns of Leigh, the artsy angst of Eustache would all stand out like deliberate crutches in Mutual Appreciation, a very loose narrative hung upon a series of anticlimaxes, an exercise in low-key undercutting of payoff expectations. Bujalksi has jettisoned the most sanctified rule of storytelling—the one that dictates that every scene must be infused with locatable conflict. We are left to simply watch peoples’ behavior, how they navigate their own comings and goings, and their attractions to one another.
The closest thing to a central conflict in Mutual Appreciation is Alan and Ellie’s amorous feelings toward one another, but its admission and consequences come so late in the film that it’s almost an afterthought. You’ve already picked up that something lingers beneath their platonic friendship, but the feel of the film is so effortlessly observant that nothing must necessarily come of it the way it must in a typical narrative. When Noah Baumbach’s seminal twentysomething comedy Kicking and Screaming (to which Bujalksi’s films are sometimes compared) traces a cheating fling between friends, it reeks of imported conflict; it’s there to juice up the story. But what Mutual Appreciation accomplishes – and this is not minor – is that it lets its audience watch its characters with the same pleasure you watch your friends. By taking out conventional conflict, Bujalksi loosens his film enough to let audiences feel comfortable killing time in the apartments and bars the movie hangs out in. By the time he gets to the scene in which Ellie and Alan decide not to make love, it could go in any direction. The impression of improvised performances and feeling of the loosey-goosey camera work stave off any narrative predetermination, not to mention aesthetic pretense, so you get the feeling that you’re watching behavior, rather than vessels acting out a filmmaker’s idea of what they represent.
One of the most unexpectedly electrifying scenes in Mutual Appreciation is the one in which Ellie tells Lawrence she had a “weird moment” with Alan when they confessed their attraction to one another. The key to the scene isn’t any unburdening of guilt – Ellie didn’t really do anything – but how Lawrence will respond to it. Bujalski and his actors have made such a relaxed job of relaying incisive observations about minor moments in human behavior and interaction that my expectations were running high when Ellie made her confession. And for what, really? Ellie hasn’t done anything, she just wants to be honest. And Lawrence is a level-headed guy, he won’t blow his top, that much is clear. So what’s happening in the scene is that the audience is excited and anxious about what will certainly not be a climactic moment. Lawrence digests the information and goes into the kitchen. Ellie follows him and when he finally speaks he begins with “It’s frustrating because …” His opening is exactly the kind of deliberate wording that people use to mean “I have to say something here, and I’m about to do it, but there’s no way that it can be meaningful enough to fill the space you just created between us.” He doesn’t get mad, as there’s nothing to be mad about. He responds honestly, without self-importance, making an effort to close the gap between him and Ellie, not indulging himself or the audience in a screaming match, as would happen in a Cassavetes picture.
What’s so impressive about Mutual Appreciation is that it manages to portray so casually people who are in fact remarkably singular and mature. It feels good to get to know these people, and you actually do. Not the way they react in trauma or heartbreak, just the way they behave and live their lives. There isn’t anything outwardly or physically impressive about most of the characters, but Mutual Appreciation manages to get close enough to show us that we could probably learn a thing or two from them.