The “mumblecore” movement was always terribly named and unfairly scrutinized, even by connoisseurs of American independent film. From the early-2000s on, filmmakers like Joe Swanberg, the Duplass brothers, Lynn Shelton, and Andrew Bujalski produced micro-budget features, often with amateur actors, focusing on naturalistic situations (the inevitable comparison to John Cassavetes was appropriate, though not always flattering). These films have often been accused of pretension for asking their audiences to care about the low-stakes relationship drama of aimless twenty- and thirty-somethings, but that was rather the point: as Hollywood strayed ever further into big-budget CGI world-shattering conflicts and even mainstream indie cinema shot for Oscars with quirky feel-good comedies, it was a small but necessary statement to suggest that films don’t have to be a life or death affair of redemption and overly wrought emotion. The peace and quiet of it all meant we could just see some faces that we weren’t used to seeing on screen (be it black lovers in Barry Jenkins’ “Medicine for Melancholy,” or aimless young women in Lena Dunham’s pre-“Girls” feature “Tiny Furniture”), without raising a giant think-piece fuss about it. Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar, and a movie is just a movie.
There’s nothing about that notion that can’t survive with a slightly larger budget and capable professionals, and the way Shelton, Swanberg, et al, have started working with increasingly starry ensembles (to results, it must be said, as varied in quality as their early output) demonstrates that “mumblecore” was born more out of practicality than philosophy. Bujalski in particular was clearly chafing against the supposed constraints of his movement in 2013’s “Computer Chess,” a film that was clever, curious, and possibly utter nonsense, but was certainly not “natural.”
Bujalski’s follow-up, “Results,” continues to subtly push filmmaking fantasy into a conversational, character-driven context. While “Computer Chess” messed quite openly with reality, with retro-camera flair and explicit dream and drug sequences, the flight of fancy in “Results” is more structural, and only reveals itself gradually. In fact, it’s not until quite late in the game, after a lot of stretching and lifting and hemming and hawing, that Bujalski reveals what we’ve been watching: a pretty standard rom-com, of the sort that the major studios can’t be bothered to make anymore.
At least, the genre has generally been pushed out of the multiplex. “Results” would never have been considered “standard” even in the days when Nora Ephron, Nancy Meyers and Cameron Crowe reigned, but the same general pieces are there. Cobie Smulders plays Kat, a personal trainer living in Austin and the object of something approaching affection for both Trevor (Guy Pearce), her boss, and Danny (Kevin Corrigan), a schlubby, newly wealthy oddball who wanders into Trevor’s gym wanting to learn “how to take a punch.” Danny makes an awkward and unwanted pass at Kat, who reacts badly, and inspires something of a crisis in confidence in Trevor. He and Kat previously had a short fling that the two only half-acknowledge, and he struggles to reconcile his growing jealousy and interest in Kat with his plans of expanding his gym and spreading his home-grown fitness philosophy.
The jabs at the pseudo-spiritual babble of personal fitness are entertaining but never cruel – Bujalski has an unexpected empathy for its advocates, Trevor especially, putting “Results” somewhere closer to a James L. Brooks workplace rom-com like “Broadcast News” than the realm of satire. When Anthony Michael Hall shows up as a Russian kettlebell guru, the whole bit is remarkably underplayed, the neuroses of Trevor and Kat allowed to dominate the scene over this potential farce. Bujalski never takes the obvious joke, and for that reason the film never perhaps never achieves show-stopping hilarity; but it continually surprises with smaller, more knowing chuckles.
The understatement in Bujalski’s script and direction puts most of the film’s weight on its ensemble, who more than deliver. All of them are cast well within their type, but Bujalski allows them the space to fiddle and find the endearing quirks and details that make them instantly recognizable as actual human beings. Corrigan has always been an invaluable character actor (you might recognize him as Ray Liotta’s little brother in “Goodfellas”), and Pearce’s appeal as a leading man, which Hollywood never managed to fully capitalize on, lies in the fragile and wounded sense of insecurity he can convey through a tough exterior. Smulders might be the revelation, though perhaps my surprise was just from realizing how under-served she was by the endless back half of “How I Met Your Mother.” Kat is a terrific character, particularly among the simplistic portrayals of women that usually populate rom-coms – she’s acerbic and quick to anger, but most importantly, not a secret softie underneath. The overall screen time strays a little unfortunately more towards Trevor and Danny’s side of the story, but Kat is allowed to be (and remain) as complex a jumble of sympathies and desires as her two co-leads.
The choices made by these actors, and in Bujalski’s script, keep things from feeling formulaic. At the same time, that strips “Results” of much sense of urgency – a natural and ultimately predictable endpoint emerges, but it can’t help but feel somewhat arbitrary among all the narrative noodling. But it’s a solid, fulfilling, and even fun variety of noodle: one that lets capable adult actors have capable adult problems and interact in conversations that don’t feel tailored around sound bites. It’s a small joy that comes along all too rarely these days.
Verdict: 3 out of 4 stars