Since I still have my doubts about the whole lackadaisical, low-maintenance mumblecore movie movement (unless that delightful Aaron Katz has anything to do with it!), I was quite suspicious about "Baghead," which is itself a suspicious movie about suspicious people doing suspicious things to one another in a suspicious locale. I'm still suspicious about the movie as I'm writing this.
Jay and Mark Duplass, the bros who had a hand in defining the mumblecore scene with "The Puffy Chair" a couple of years back, follow up with a different kind of mumblecore film -- one that's supposed to scare you. (During the movie, I was scribbling in my notebook, "It's a mumblecore horror flick! No, it's a mumblecore slasher flick! No, it's a mumblecore 'Blair Witch!'")
The movie revolves around a foursome of out-of-work actors: dashing Matt (Ross Partridge), his on-again, off-again girlfriend Catherine (Elise Muller), his doughy best bud Chad (Steve Zissis) and would-be love of his life Michelle (Brittany Murphy-looking mumblecore muse Greta Gerwig).
After seeing a pretentious independent flick called "We Are Naked," they decide they could make a better movie than that. So, they head out to Matt's uncle's remote cabin to hammer out script ideas. When Michelle dreams (or did she?) that she woke up in the middle of the night and saw a man with a paper bag over his head in the woods, Matt decides this is their movie.
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Michelle shouldn't have brought this up. The prospect of a hooded, psychotic woodsman is too good for this quartet to pass up. They spend the rest of their time there turning this figure into a reality and spooking the bejesus out of one another.
It's easy to dismiss "Baghead" as a movie about a bunch of drunk, bored, out-of-work people scaring one another in the woods. (That's what I did initially.) But there are some subtler things at work here. With Chad having a thing for Michelle, who wants to hook up with Matt, whom Catherine still considers hers, they mostly freak each other out because they can't seem to express how they all feel about each other. Even if they didn't pull these juvenile scare tactics, we still would've grasped that these folk are stuck in their immature sensibilities.
That is why the movie's most horrifying moments happen when the characters aren't in fear-factor mode. It's when they're with each other, actually trying to express all those lovey-dovey feelings. Tell me you won't recoil in terror when the inadequate Chad tries to make a move on a drunken Michelle, only to have Michelle let him know that she thinks of him as "more than a best friend, but a brother," or when the lonely Catherine does everything short of hopping on the lap of a clueless Matt, desperately reminding him that she's always available. It's so painful to watch -- because you've probably done it oh-so-many times.
"Baghead" appears to be a meta movie that practically gorges on itself. It's a mumblecore movie that slams the mumblecore movement. (Nothing in this movie ever tops the "We Are Naked" opening.) It's a slasher movie that toys with slasher-movie conventions. (Just like in slasher films, there are also naked boobies.) And it's a comedy about past-their-prime actors starring actors who are -- wait for it -- past their prime. (Partridge's credits alone includes movies with Christian Slater and Gina Gershon!)
But while "Baghead" is a movie that's more clever and understandable the more you think about it afterward, it's still something I was a bit leery and cynical about while watching it. Perhaps a second viewing will temper my doubtfulness. Wow, a movie I'm thinking about seeing again -- maybe this mumblecore scene isn't so sketchy after all.