NEVER APOLOGIZE?: Or apologize all the time?
Recently, on WBUR’s On Point, I heard Harvard conservative Harvey Mansfield plug a book he’s written in praise of “manliness,” a trait he finds embodied today in Donald Rumsfeld. I’d like to hear what Mansfield would say about Mutual Appreciation, Andrew Bujalski’s superior follow-up to his excellent 2002 directorial debut, Funny Ha Ha. A key scene shows the hero, at the suggestion of three women he’s just met at a party, put on a wig, a dress, and eye shadow. Mansfield and his sort might find the film instructive.
In She Wore a Yellow Ribbon Nathan Brittles (John Wayne, a Mansfield-approved male) tells Olivia Dandridge never to apologize — “It’s a sign of weakness.” No Waynes, the men in Mutual Appreciation always apologize. Early on, Alan (Justin Rice), who’s just moved from Boston to New York and is hoping to get his career as a musician on track, explains to the DJ (Seung-Min Lee) who takes him home that his nervousness before her advances is the result of a “congenital tremor.” His long-time friend Lawrence (Bujalski) does an aw-shucks reaction when a woman (Pamela Corkey) who wants to cast him for a performance piece says she’s seeking “compelling guys, interesting men.” (He gives her what he calls “a tentative yes,” which is these people’s characteristic mode of affirmation.) Self-depreciation is not an exclusively male trait in Mutual Appreciation: Lawrence’s girlfriend, Ellie (Rachel Clift), confesses to Alan her feeling that when the three are together, she’s an intruder, and that the two men share “a secret code.”
Introducing his songs to a prospective drummer (Kevin Micka), Alan seems to apologize for their simplicity. He later describes his sound as “kind of pop — concise, catchy, upbeat” — and the way he says those adjectives conveys his awareness that for many they’re pejoratives. It comes as a surprise, then, how confident and energetic he is in his New York debut performance (at Brooklyn’s Northsix): to put over his Billy Bragg–like material, he’s cultivated a stage persona that includes wire-rims and a slight British accent.
Alan reverts post-gig to his usual passive manner, but the strange awkwardness that’s been the film’s keynote becomes threatening. There’s a sense that something unknown could break out. There’s also a sharper pinpointing of the problems with the ambiguity that’s a way of life for the people in the film. Here’s where Bujalski excels. “I’m not sure where we are,” Alan says during an uncomfortable visit to the apartment of a stranger who saw his gig. It’s a key metaphor in a film that’s all about several kinds of uncertainty and placelessness.
As Alan reveals his discontent and his loneliness and Ellie acknowledges that she’s attracted to him, a layer of honesty is reached, but the great power of the film lies in its refusal to settle for this layer as essence or transcendence. “I’d like to talk about real things with you . . . reality would be nice,” she says to him during what, in another kind of film, could be a moment of truth. Mutual Appreciation shows life as contingent, conditional, enigmatic, never finally realized, as, in short, everything that the Harvey Mansfields of the world abhor, and it shows why to accept this kind of life is an act of strength.