The state of the slacker movie.

Deleted scenes, commentary, and more.
Feb. 22 2007 12:37 PM

The Slacker Movie's Quarterlife Crisis

Mutual Appreciation and The Puffy Chair reveal a genre stuck in a rut.

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Worse: Being a slacker isn't actually about underachievement. Slacking is about a different standard of achievement, eschewing corporate work to follow your passion, however obscure or lacking in formation. If what you really want to do is go on tour with your band Hey, That's My Bike!, or spend time in coffee shops making collages for your conceptual zine about Barbie, slacking reminds us that those are valuable pursuits. Slackers on film play an important role in the lives of nonslackers, former slackers, and anti-slackers alike, existing to gently remind us of our most pure and essential selves, untarnished by work, responsibility, and the Man. And as often as not, women aren't there to join in the good times, but to undermine the slacker hero, demanding commitment or employment or diverting attention away from his music or friends: a succubus for every pure soul.

There are exceptions like Linklater's Slacker—notable for having its share of female slackers, perhaps most famously Teresa Taylor of the Austin band the Butthole Surfers. But the tired equation of lazy guy plus the woman who reforms him repeats itself over and over. In Reality Bites, Winona Ryder, an ambitious documentary filmmaker, drives angsty musician Ethan Hawke to re-evaluate his ways by dating yuppified executive Ben Stiller. It's there in Mutual Appreciation, with Alan's attraction to his best girl friend—notable for being the only character with gainful employment—who doesn't do much besides demonstrate good organizational skills and spout sound, girly advice. And it's the central question in The Puffy Chair, where we are definitely supposed to root for Josh to break up with his girlfriend, a woman prone to asking, "Why do you love me?" before bed.

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This brings up a flaw inherent to the slacker oeuvre: If these movies are meant to celebrate slacking, why must the slackers always give it up at the end? Sure, everyone likes a character arc, but there are many ways to be an adult between the extremes of the wake-and-bake and the morning commute. It seems lazy that Bujalski and the Duplass brothers don't try very hard to represent that. After two decades of slackers on film, the genre hasn't grown up—it's just moved to Brooklyn.

About halfway through The Puffy Chair, there is a surprise wedding with ad-libbed vows, provided for both bride and groom by Josh, that are supposed to be at once funny and moving. So, the groom solemnly intones to his bride that "when and if something goes bad between us, I will never look elsewhere for happiness." Fine. But her vows are so much more telling: "I promise to always support you in what you want, even when you don't know what you want. And I promise I will never pressure you to do or be anything you don't want to be." Could a slacker ever hope for a greater commitment than that? The new slate of slacker movies is retro not just because they imply that women can't properly hang with the guys; it's something far more nefarious and old-fashioned than that. Essentially, they're saying that women have to be there to care for and motivate a man—and in that responsibility, there's no room to slack off.

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