Watching Cristi Puiu's The Death of Mr. Lazarescu, some might be tempted to think its astonishing naturalistic longueurs could be duplicated by anyone with a camera and a few free hours. But making the minutiae of life hold continuous interest is no easy task, as demonstrated by Puiu's fledgling first feature, 2001's Stuff And Dough. The basic framework is the same: He starts the clock ticking on a urgent task, then fills the minutes with the kind of aimless chatter that devours most of our waking hours, so each pointless argument seems like a maddening denial of an imminent crisis.
Although the movies use similar strategies, it turns out to make a big difference whether the pressing issue is the slow death of an elderly hermit, or a drug delivery run by a shiftless dropout. In Stuff And Dough, Alexandru Papadopol is given four hours and a suspiciously large amount of money to drive a bag of "medical substances" to Bucharest, but he's so thick-witted that he doesn't consider he might be doing something illegal until an angry thug smashes his car window. His attitude far outpacing his aptitude, Papadopol nods impatiently as California Dreamin's Razvan Vasilescu stresses the need for speed. Then he climbs back into bed the second he's alone. His friends Dragos Bucur and Ioana Flora prove no quicker on the draw, although their lovers' quarrels enliven many a dead patch of road.
Stuff And Dough sometimes briefly turns into a slow-speed chase movie—think Bullitt filmed with stick-shift vans on Romanian back roads. But for the most part, the movie is as adrift as its post-teen characters, slogging through the muck of post-Communist Europe with eyes cast firmly downward. (It was shot on battered 16mm of varying quality, which only enhances the sense of despair.) There's no question of the mood Puiu means to capture, the sullen anomie of a rootless generation, but too often, he's just spinning his wheels.