Written by: Erica Goldberg, Special to CC2K
In an attempt to defy Hollywood, most American indie films resort to a formula that has become as predictable as any summer blockbuster or romantic comedy: awkward, smaller-than-life dialog that is pretentiously unpretentious, and a stunted plot infused with an offbeat romantic element. Baghead, an official selection at the 2008 Sundance Film Festival, is quintessentially indie. It contains all of the truthful moments and intimacy of a good indie film, but also succumbs to the type of filmmaking that has made many of them seem amateurish. What sets Baghead apart, and the final reason to spend some time in the world of directors Jay and Mark Duplass, is that Baghead does this on purpose. The magic of Baghead, an independent film about making an independent film, is that the Duplass brothers charitably mock themselves, their genre, and their audience. Fortunately, when all of the layers of self-reference become overwhelming, a character will say something so perfect, it defrays the cleverness, like, “I’m sorry we busted you masturbating, dude.”
Baghead is set in a cabin in the woods, where four aspiring movie stars take a weekend getaway to create a film that will jumpstart their careers. Matt (Ross Partridge), a sexy yet weathered actor, is the leader of the group. Chad (Steve Zissis), is his heavier, balder friend who is infatuated with Michelle (Gretta Gerwig), the ingénue with the refreshing face, mischievous charm, and nightly binge drinking habit. Catherine (Elise Muller) completes the quartet as the aging beauty who has dated Matt sporadically for over a decade and is comically unaware of his irritation with her.
The four decide to embark on their mission to make a movie after watching “We Are Naked,” an exaggerated and stylized indie film that Baghead itself comes to resemble. The first night in the cabin, no one can come up with an inspiring idea for a movie. Then, Michelle dreams about a man with a bag over his head, and Matt attempts to convince the others that this is a winning premise for a horror flick. Although the audience joins the characters in their skepticism of this idea as frightening, we begin to believe when a real Baghead enters Michelle’s room at night. (Those of you who see indie films for more than the artistry should note that Michelle shows the Baghead her breasts. This is either intended to parody the gratuitous nudity in “We Are Naked” or to indulge in its own gratuitous nudity).
The movie leaves the audience constantly guessing as to whether the Baghead prowling the cabin is truly a murderous madman or a gag orchestrated by one of the characters. Just when it seems that the identity of the Baghead is revealed, the plot double-backs against itself, and the audience is drawn deeper and deeper into the absurdity of a movie about a Baghead.
The mystery of the Baghead is nicely complemented by the romantic intrigue between the four characters. The Duplass brothers are masters of painful and authentic romantic interactions, and they perfectly capture the nuances of ambiguously requited love. Michelle, who has a crush on Matt, spends much of her time at the cabin dodging Chad’s unskilled advances and generally brutalizing Chad’s heart. In one fantastic scene, Chad attempts to seduce Michelle while she puts babydoll clips in his hair and tells him that he resembles a toddler. Through the course of the action, though, we get the sense that Chad’s good humor and fondness for Michelle may eventually overcome her resistance. Perhaps the most genuinely (although perhaps unintentionally) frightening and suspenseful moment is when Chad tells Michelle that someday “you will be mine.”
The real chemistry occurs between Matt and Chad, whose scenes are filled with gems of dialogue and humor. My favorite scene in the movie ends with Chad telling Matt, “I don’t want bullshit ice cream. I want Haagen Dazs.” A lot of the good-indie aspects of the film involve these unlikely friends struggling to satisfy their female companions and remain true to their friendship.
In many ways, Baghead is exactly what it sounds like, a movie about a guy with a bag on his head. Astoundingly, Baghead also simultaneously keeps the audience in suspense and confusion about the fate of its characters and its own nature. In the end, the Duplass brothers achieved the goal of their moving-making characters; they created a delightful way to spend an hour and a half using the premise of a Baghead. That’s quite an accomplishment.