My Effortless Brilliance (2009) dir. Lynn Shelton
Starring: Basel Harris, Eric Lambert Jones, Calvin Reeder
By Alan Bacchus
Lynn Shelton’s” “Humpday” was a great film, perhaps the most audience accessible of this new wave of low rent, semi-improvised Mumblecore films. Unfortunately her previous film, “My Effortless Brilliance”, now available on DVD is not. In fact, it’s probably the worst example of the genre - a terribly navel-gazing and esoteric excuse for a movie.
One of the hallmarks of the Mumblecore genre are the self-absorbed characters whom we see living in their own bubble of petty troubles. However self-absorbed, in 'Humpday' or 'The Puffy Chair' or 'Baghead' this vacuum of angst produced engaging, funny and entertaining characters who go through profound emotional revelations and under the funny observations situational comedy.
In 'My Effortless Brilliance' there’s a conscience effort of Shelton to avoid all of the above. It’s a simple story of two friends who reconnect in the Washington backwoods, years after a falling out. Dylan (Basel Harris) is a semi-successful Seattle-based writer whose pretentious attitude pissed off his old buddy Sean (Eric Lambert Jones), so much so it caused Sean to retreat into near obscurity in the rural Washington interior. Years later, upon the release of Dylan’s latest book he decides on a whim to drive to Sean’s house for a surprise visit.
Sean is exudes no emotion upon seeing Dylan. Is he surprised? Shocked? Pissed off? Happy? Don’t know, but the elephant in the room, the conflict which caused their male-breakup, is never discussed. There’s much awkwardness between the two as they struggle to carry on even a simple conversation. The weekend discomfort continues when Dylan’s woodchopping buddy, Jim joins the fray for hunting trip for a local cougar. The two bond their mutual annoyance of Jim, before Dylan had to leave for the big city.
So we have a story two people fighting, who don’t fight, and we don’t even know what they’re fighting about. What ends up on screen is a lot of dramatic pauses, lengthy improvised and inane dialogue which merely fills space and a lot of long glances and shift eyed eyebrow movements.
The film appears to have been praised for creating a pressure cooker of awkwardness between two passive-aggressive best friends. Indeed, some tension is created with this dynamic, and it’s enough to sustain a first act, but not two other acts in a feature film.
A comparison film executed with infinitely more subtlety, grace, comedy, drama and entertainment value is Richard Linklater’s 'Tape”' which features two old college buddies in a room rekindling old fire and exposing old war wounds. Even Kelly Reichardt’s “Old Joy”, is paced with the same kind of slow simmering tension benefits from a tone of melancholy and sombre life reflection.
There’s much integrity in its filmmaking methodology which we learn in the DVD’s behind-the-scenes featurette. Shelton, essentially employing the Mike Leigh approach of developing the script extensively with the actors as opposed to drafting a traditional screenplay. Watch this film as practice ground for Shelton’s much better executed “Humpday”.