Review: Mutual Appreciation
The fact that Mutual Appreciation ends in a group hug blows apart most attempts to connect its style with Seinfeld's "show about nothing" aesthetic, but it is rather telling that the film essentially modifies the tv classic's resolutely unsentimental "no hugs or learning" mandate to "no fucking or learning." Of course, anyone who actually believes that either Jerry Seinfeld's sitcom or Andrew Bujalski's DIY dramedy are actually about "nothing" is incredibly imperceptive. Though Bujalski leaves pained "voice of a generation" ambitions to the likes of Zach Braff, both this film and his exceptional debut Funny Ha Ha examine the lives of post-collegiate middle class indie-ish 20somethings who are quietly flailing through the last remaining moments of the grace period between directionless youth and responsible adulthood. Whereas Seinfeld's principal characters tend to be slaves to their id, Bujalski's cast are dominated by their superegos to such an extent that they consistently deny their every desire, hence the total lack of fucking in his features, though there are a few cringe-inducing close calls.
More than anything else, both of Bujalski's films examine the way his characters use (and abuse) language to obfuscate their intentions and thinly veil their considerable insecurities. His core cast are intelligent and educated, but just barely articulate and rarely if ever self-aware. Bujalski's script (which is so effortlessly naturalistic that it seems improvised, but is not) has an uncanny knack for nailing the sort of linguistic tics that consume their interactions – jokes (good and bad; some well-timed, others not) that pop up to avoid dead air in conversations; rambling monologues full of ideas that are expressed without having been thought through in advance; passive-aggressive digs that fall flat because they err too closely to passivity. His characters are seemingly incapable of saying exactly what they mean, and so we're left to extrapolate from the mess of their dialogue, which is at once incredibly transparent to outside observers, but baffling to one another as they constantly hedge their bets, dutifully avoiding any sort of interpersonal weirdness.
As Mutual Appreciation progresses, some weirdness does go down in the form of a confused, oddly dispassionate love triangle between its leads. Bujalski plays Lawrence, a man nearly devoid of sexual charisma who is stuck in a pleasant but depressingly complacent and chemistry-free relationship with Ellie, who harbors an ambivalent crush on Lawrence's best friend Alan, who has moved to Brooklyn from Boston to pursue a career in ambition-free indie rock. Alan is both inspired and cowed by the level of careerism necessary to simply get by in New York City, and as his star slowly rises, he finds himself repulsed by people who seem to want something from him, and conflates Ellie's unconditional friendship and support with a deeper love. Even as they overcome their reticence to express themselves and come clean about their feelings for one another, they lack the passion necessary to follow through and opt to preserve their unhappy status quo.
It's not a coincidence that the only time Alan ever displays a strong conviction is when he emphasizes to his new drummer that his music ought to never be anything other than amiable and lacking in complexity. (He doesn't come out and say this, per se, but it is the implication of his words.) His avoidance of conflict in his personal life directly manifests itself in the creation of music that deflects strong criticism and seems designed to make the largest number of people in his potential audience nod in vague approval. Like everyone else in the story, as well as far too many people of his generation, he is more interested in being a part of a community than in his own personal expression. In one of the film's best scenes he incoherently proposes a "Cool Inclusive People's Club" that essentially boils down to the sort of low-stakes networking that normally occurs between like-minded friends, and the idea is more exciting to him than his actual art, which is arguably something he only does to gain a social privilege that he never fully enjoys.