Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Tiny Furniture (dir. Lena Dunham)

It's always exciting to see a new comedic voice getting a chance to speak. Hell, in this market, it's exciting to see a truly new voice of ANY kind getting a chance to speak. And I do think, comedically, Lena Dunham has an awful lot to say about our generation, and she says it quite well. The funniest moments of this film are among the funniest all year (in, admittedly, a weak year for out-and-out comedies, but a great year for comedy in drama, e.g. True Grit and The Social Network). Unfortunately, an inexplicable need to make this all "matter" can be the comic's downfall, and so it is with Dunham's breakout feature, Tiny Furniture.

She has an upward battle getting us to care about an aimless college graduate, Aura (played by Dunham) stuck in the uncertainty of life without structure. The weird thing is that I, as something of an aimless postgrad myself, am right there with her, but her inability to gain our compassion comes less with audience identification (always the lowest reason to appreciate a work of art) than it does with sheer dramatic ineptitude. I've heard a great many complaints that the main character is "unlikeable," and that's not really it. Plenty of characters throughout cinematic history are "unlikeable" while still being sympathetic or at the very least compelling. The problem, rather, is that Aura is hardly a character at all. The writing can only be half to blame, because I'm sure a real actor could have found their way in.

Let me explain what I mean by "real actor" - I'm not saying the cast needed a better resume. Few of the film's stars are actors in any sense of the word. They're acknowledged, even proclaimed non-professionals, but they also simply cannot act. They manage the comedy quite well, especially Jemima Kirke as Aura's oldest (if not exactly closest) friend, who makes it out as the film's true breakthrough talent. Everyone else is pretty tuned in, and there is some really terrific comedic rhythm happening here. But they, worst of all Dunham herself, can't craft a character to save their lives, or the film. There's a heavy Wes Anderson influence at work here, from the deadpan humor to the set design (and shot composition thereof), and it almost feels like she's trying to toe the same line between comedy and drama. But Anderson also consistently found good, if not great, actors who could balance the comedy and reveal the sadness behind the jokes; the quiet desperation for approval. Dunham has the superficial elements with none of the soul.

But Dunham spends too much time making fun of everyone - including and especially herself - to afford us any chance to care about these people, so when the drama starts to kick in, we're adrift. It has nothing to do with "liking" them or caring about their given circumstance. All we have to do is care about them as people, which the film is certainly asking of us by the end, but no one can manage that. Dunham is completely unable to sell the drama, especially in stark contrast to her comedic talent, and no one else in the film fares much better.

I do hope we see more from Dunham. I like a lot of the directorial choices she made, starting with shooting a no-budget indie film in anamorphic widescreen when nearly all of her contemporaries settle for the consumer-programmed 1.85:1 ratio (and she used a tripod, no less!), and again, she really knows comedy. But she has a long way to go as a writer, and I can only hope her days as a leading lady are far behind.

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