It takes more than a little chutzpah to make an independent movie satirizing the making of independent movies. The indie scene gets an inauspicious introduction in “Baghead,” when the four main characters, two couples of 20-to-30-something actors, witness one of those fatally small-budgeted entries at a tiny Los Angeles film festival and decide later over cocktails that such a project could be their ticket to the big time. They will spend a weekend together at a cabin retreat and write a movie starring themselves, just like so-and-so. Theirs will be much better, of course.
It seems realistic enough from an if-you-can't-beat-them point of view that these four — Matt (Ross Partridge), Chad (Steve Zissis), Michelle (Greta Gerwig) and Catherine (Elise Muller) — would first deride and then copy, and realism is the heart of the appeal of this movie. The retreat begins in frustration, with Michelle getting too drunk on beer the first night and Chad making a painfully awkward confession to her. Her response, like much of the movie, is almost too mundane to be believed, but also thoroughly convincing. Chad's grueling self-extraction from Michelle's bedroom after her stereotypical response, trying to muster some muted dignity in his ignominious but preordained defeat, is worth the price of admission.
Though “Baghead” is supposed to be about would-be filmmakers, it mostly concerns itself with the trials and tribulations of being single in hipsterdom — getting into guest-listed parties, becoming successful before the embarrassment of old age sets in and tiptoeing around the quicksand of dating. The quest to write a movie is mostly a backdrop to funny, sometimes insightful moments about everyday life — as when the two female protagonists have a frank conversation about their significant others in the bathroom, their confessions about how they feel in diametric opposition to the men. These are ironic would-be videographers of the human condition, given that not one among them seems to have a clue what the closest people in their lives think and feel.
“Baghead” is written and directed by Mark and Jay Duplass, who, even if they are trying to be ironic, grab their share of zeitgeist by calling themselves the Duplass Bros. If you've never heard of them, don't worry; unless you're a fan of their small-scale breakout “The Puffy Chair” from 2005, you haven't had much chance to. Mark, a commendable actor in his own right, had a brief role opposite Gerwig in her 2007 acting and writing credit “Hannah Takes the Stairs,” a similar low-budget movie about the cross purposes of a group of absurdly selfish young people. Gerwig and Mark Duplass are now actors and filmmakers to watch. Though Duplass had a small role in “Hannah,” his gift for understated comedy was efficiently evident and it comes through nicely in “Baghead,” with that dry but somewhat menacing tone reminiscent of the better examples among newer, ultrarealistic sitcoms.
As a filmmaking style, these movies and others like them are part of a loosely defined concept of do-it-yourself filmmaking dubbed “mumblecore” a few years ago. They are low-budget and often feature amateur actors working with improvised dialogue in front of camera work that could be described as cute — jerking this way and that, zooming in and out and cutting without warning, often with no apparent reason. The result could certainly be taken for carelessness, guilty as it is at times of coming off half-baked or lazy. But if nothing else the Duplass Bros. are doing what countless outsiders before them have done in order to break into Hollywood, filling a neglected niche, in this case making movies about young adults that try to be true to life without pandering. There's not a lot coming from any corner of the film industry that strives to be about real life.
“Baghead” seems unconcerned with whether its story contains grand social commentary like “The Big Chill,” or whether its characters learn about themselves as they do in movies like “Reality Bites.” Its characters are ultimately clueless. They don't learn a thing. In fact the ultimate joke the Duplasses play on the characters, and perhaps the contemporary movie-making process in general, is that the foursome's script is completely in step with Hollywood — and therefore completely unlike the movie they are actually in. Though tempting, it would be a shame to spoil the surprise by revealing the plot of that movie within a movie. Suffice it to say you shouldn't be surprised to come across a trailer for it someday. (R) 84 min. HHHHI S