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Funny Ha Ha

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Democratization of the medium aside, the first scene in writer-director Andrew Bujalski's no-budget Funny Ha Ha is enough to make a person lament the age when anyone with a camera can make a movie. Though an adorably self-effacing screen presence, Kate Dollenmayer makes her entrance in harsh lighting and hard shadows, squeezing into a tattoo parlor that looks like a poorly dressed dorm room. Yet once the film's relaxed, confident rhythms start to take hold, this same DIY plainness becomes an asset, syncing with dialogue so realistic that the camera seems plopped into a room without anyone noticing. Through an apparent mix of scripting and improvisational technique, Bujalski and his non-professional cast insert the "kind ofs," "likes," and "you knows" that are part of casual conversation, but never make it into movie scripts. With this wonderfully de-stylized slacker-speak, Bujalski observes the awkward way people talk around the things most important to them, walling themselves up in apologies, non sequiturs, and a fumbling sort of passive-aggressiveness. Some scenes go on too long, while others are too obstinate in their refusal to drive the story forward, but much like a John Cassavetes film, untidiness is part of the point. Dollenmayer, who previously worked as an animator on Richard Linklater's Waking Life, carries herself with a modest, uncertain demeanor that's oddly irresistible and ingratiating; when one suitor tells her that 90 percent of the men she knows are in love with her, it's not that hard to believe. A post-grad Bostonian in between jobs and in between mates, Dollenmayer sheepishly pursues her friend Christian Rudder, a computer programmer who's not quite ready to give up on his on-again/off-again girlfriend. In the meantime, other men are drawn to her as if she were Louise Brooks in Pandora's Box, including her close friend's dopey live-in boyfriend (Myles Paige) and a painfully neurotic office clerk, well-played by the director himself. Funny Ha Ha doesn't have a conventional structure or story arc, nor does it feel compelled to tie up loose ends, no matter how long they dangle. The ending, too, is almost defiantly arbitrary, as if Bujalski decided to just slap the lens cap back on his camera. But what the film loses in shape, it gains in uneasy verisimilitude, especially in a bravura afternoon-date sequence with Dollenmayer and Bujalski's character. Sponsored by a guy who counts "So, like, what's your deal?" as a pick-up line, the pair sputters through the forced whimsy of basketball and chess games, until the date collapses with a stunning act of offhand hostility. Everyone has been there before, but like a lot of scenes in Funny Ha Ha, the commonplace somehow seems invigoratingly original.