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October 2005

I received a letter and two discs in the mail recently from someone I had never heard from before, Jay Duplass. The letter mentioned my Cassavetes on Cassavetes book as being an inspiration to him in his work, and the disks contained a feature, The Puffy Chair, and four shorts, "The Intervention," "Scrabble/Scrapple," "This is John," and "The New Brad." As usual, I added the package and note to the heap of disks and tapes in my living room. I had a spare moment last Saturday night. It was late in the evening. I happened to pick the topmost package and put in the DVD of The Puffy Chair. All I can say is "wow." Wow. I have now looked at all four shorts as well as the feature, and Jay and his brother Mark Duplass, who co-wrote and co-produced these films, have instantly become two of my favorite filmmakers, and the actress they work with in the feature and three of the shorts has instantly become one of my favorite actors. Wow. And double wow. I recommend their work to one and all. It is simply astonishing.

Two things make their work so amazing. First, the acting is at the level of a Cassavetes or Noonan film (even in the shorts--particularly the first two I listed above, "The Intervention" and "Scrabble/Scrapple"). That's almost unprecedented in my experience. Flickers, flutters, flows of emotion ripple back and forth between the characters at the speed of light. Shades, colors, timbers of feeling that change second by second, without stopping. "The Intervention" is a group film and a viewer watches six or seven faces at once or one by one as a bombshell explodes. "Scrabble/Scrapple" is a two person film and underneath a banal boardgame, a war takes place. It is all in the acting. In the tones of voice. In gestures and movements. In the eyes and faces. It is genius-level acting and genius-level filmmaking.

Second, the work of the Duplass brothers isn't afraid to be intense. I have seen too many movies where everyone stays "cool," where everyone is nice, where everyone is afraid to cry or scream. The Duplass brothers raise the temperature emotionally. If I have a recurrent issue with the dozens of "slacker/twenty-something" movies I've seen, it is that nothing hurts deeply enough, no one cries desperately enough, no one is in love painfully enough, no one fights viciously enough, none of the arguments is serious enough---in a word, that these other films don't show the real hurt, the real anguish, the real excruciations of real love. Everything is always a bit "lite." A bit jokey. A bit too friendly. A bit too polite and nice and kind and thoughtful.

What sets The Puffy Chair, "The Intervention," and "Scrabble/Scrapple" apart from the crowd is that the actors, the characters, and the stories are deadly serious in an emotional vein -- serious about love, serious about human relationships, serious about life. In The Puffy Chair, Josh and Emily's relationship really hurts. The characters are in real pain. Josh's and Rhett's relationship really hurts. The film really hurts.

Of course it's also funny in parts. I don't mean to deny that. But thank God for the seriousness. Thank God for the pain. The real truth of the real pain. Thank God for Mark and Jay Duplass. RC

A review of their feature follows:

The Puffy Chair by Mark and Jay Duplass

Where does the problem lie? Why are the films that get the most attention the stupidest, most banal, most clichéd ones? Why does America not appreciate its true cinematic artists? Is the problem the greed of distributors? Is it the stupidity of reviewers? Is it the timidity of viewers who only go to movies they have heard about, or ones that have movie stars in them, or ones that have a million dollar advertising budget? Or is it some combination of all of these factors?

A few days ago a movie called The Puffy Chair came in the mail. It was produced by Mark Duplass, directed by his brother Jay Duplass, written by the two of them, and stars three complete unknowns (at least to me): Mark Duplass (who also wears hats as the producer and co-writer), Kathryn Aselton, and Rhett Wilkins. It is, quite simply, one of the best American films of the past ten years. No ifs, ands, or buts. I am shocked not only that I had hadn't heard of the movie prior to this, but that from everything I've been able to find out, the two brothers who made it still can't get a distributor to pick it up.

The Puffy Chair is the movie Sideways was supposed to be. A love story about two good friends (in this case they are not best friends but brothers) with opposite personalities on a road trip, during which the wilder one meets a woman, and the shyer, tamer one reflects on his current relationship with his longtime girlfriend. I won't say more than that about the plot out of fear of giving away too much, except to say that where Sideways (no matter what the critics told us) ultimately presented a false, sentimental, simplified Hollywood view of life and romance, The Puffy Chair gives us the real McCoy, the real thing, the way life and love and romance really, truly are. Where Sideways was easy and obvious and simple, The Puffy Chair is stunningly delicate and complex. Where Sideways created easy problems so it could offer easy solutions to them, The Puffy Chair gives us life and love as hard to figure out, and as unamenable to easy solutions, as real life does.

But there is really no need to compare The Puffy Chair to anything else. Suffice it to say that the Duplass brothers present a beautifully moving and complex love story. Every aspect of the film is impressive, but its greatest strength is its superb acting. It took my breath away.

Kathryn Aselton, Mark Duplass, and Rhett Wilkins are stunning. Emotions cascade across Duplass's and Aselton's faces almost too rapidly to keep up with. Just as in real life, when really important things are at stake, emotions run high and arguments can dissolve into jokes and jokes can suddenly escalate into thermonuclear arguments.

I have no idea who Kathryn Aselton is, what her dramatic training is, or what she has done in film or on the stage in the past, but she is simply astonishing -- so subtle, so true, so convincing I couldn't believe my eyes at moments. I couldn't believe she was acting. It seemed like she was actually living the film, actually feeling the things her character feels.

What is wrong with the world of film that a film as beautiful as this one would have to fight for distribution? Why aren't distributors fighting each other to get it? Why haven't I heard of it before? Why haven't you? Why hasn't the world? I understand that The Puffy Chair is making the rounds of various film festivals right now. All I can say is: If you have a chance to see it, go and celebrate your discovery of an amazing new director, two terrific writers, and three wonderful actors. As great art always does, they will ask you questions you need to ask yourself, give you a few tentative, provisional answers along the way, and maybe even help you to understand your life a little more than you now do.

Ray Carney
Author of Cassavetes on Cassavetes and other works

To read a brief exchange between Jay Duplass and Ray Carney click here.

This is only the "To Print" page. To go to the regular page of Ray Carney's on which this text appears, click here, or close this window if you accessed the "To Print" page from the regular page. Once you have brought up the regular page, you may use the menus to reach all of the other pages on the site.