Talk talk

Pub date November 28, 2007
WriterMax Goldberg
SectionFilm FeaturesSectionFilm Review

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"I don’t like things that are about what they are."

The title character of Hannah Takes the Stairs says this to a coworker. The quip, though, constitutes something of a wink from the film’s director, Joe Swanberg, a leading light of a group of loose-knit DIY filmmakers regrettably known by the mumblecore moniker. That label is regrettable because it’s the kind of arch categorization that begets overbroad criticisms, chief among them the charge of navel-gazing, though in this film’s case the protagonist beats the critics to the punch.

Such flashes of self-awareness are essential for Hannah Takes the Stairs, a film that, it must be said, spends an awful lot of time attending characters who don’t have much to say. Chicago’s Swanberg is one of the most productive (with three features to his credit at age 26) and formally restless of the mumblecore set, and while Hannah isn’t quite so wracking as his other movies (LOL, Kissing on the Mouth), it seems more encompassing than its ilk. Fellow mumblecore directors Andrew Bujalski (Funny Ha-Ha, Mutual Appreciation) and Mark Duplass (The Puffy Chair) costar, and the screenplay is credited to all of the involved parties, with improvisation and riffing being de rigueur for Swanberg’s sticky dialogue.

The participants confirm what is abundantly obvious from the substance of the film. Hannah incorporates all of the trademarks of this pseudomovement, including characterization (diffident postcollegiate bumblers), theme (shrugging through love and work), style (what critic J. Hoberman aptly — if harshly — described as the intersection of The Real World, Seinfeld, and The Blair Witch Project), pacing (constant streams of smoke-screen talk), and tone (not funny ha-ha). And yet the film reminds me in some ways of those Woody Allen made in the late ’70s (Manhattan especially), the ones that walk and talk like the New York nebbish comedies you expect but that in later viewings are heavier and more downbeat than you remember.

So perhaps when Hannah refers to her "chronic dissatisfaction," she betrays something about the roiling sensibilities at work here. The character, played by the sharp-eyed Greta Gerwig, moves through three hopelessly underrealized relationships during the course of the film: the first with Mike (Duplass), an unemployed scruffster, the next with Paul (Bujalski), an unnerving coworker, and the last with Matt (Kent Osborne), her other coworker. She floats through these relationships errantly, unreliable in love and crumpled without it. The narrative’s tumble makes the breakups indistinguishable from the romances — surely part of the point of Swanberg’s compressed (85 minutes) triptych.

The film does not offer a detailed interior portrait of its heroine, but it draws a clear enough map of her face and her fate to make for some well-pitched situational comedy. The humor is in the ingenious physical framings of the various love triangles (Jules and Jim is a frequent reference point for these films), the way characters interact with certain basic props for counterpoint (Hannah crunches on ice cubes through the first breakup), and the steady stitch of repeated scenes, deployed to underscore something like exhaustion.

The episodic narration will rankle some, as will certain schoolboy poses. Swanberg has already received flak for certain smug touches in Hannah, such as a childlike papier-mâché credits sequence. I’m as allergic to indie earnestness as the next, but I think Swanberg, while of that school, is too critical to give it a free pass. During their courtship, Hannah and Paul have a heartfelt conversation through a Slinky: typical cutesiness, except that in context it signals the characters’ real inability to communicate.

And then there are the bodies. It’s hard to accuse Swanberg of sentimentality when he casts his actors’ forms in such harsh light. Coming of age is more often conveyed with exuberance than pale flesh, yet in this the director is resolute (and the nudity is refreshingly egalitarian). I was taken with Bujalski’s soulful rendering of threadbare living quarters in Mutual Appreciation, but Swanberg’s unsparing lens cuts closer to the bone.

Needless to say, then, that Hannah Takes the Stairs isn’t eager to indulge its characters, and it certainly doesn’t present them with convenient outs. Swanberg’s warts-and-all approach may not be for everyone, but it’s an important redress of Knocked Up‘s mismatched fantasy. These kids are all right, even when they’re not. *



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