The Slacker Movie's Quarterlife Crisis
Mutual Appreciation and The Puffy Chair reveal a genre stuck in a rut.
There was a time when the most endearing men on film smoked pot for breakfast, rarely saw fit to leave the couch, and espoused homegrown ideologies that linked The Smurfs with Krishna. They were slackers, masters of the art of time suckage, and theirs was a proud and noble calling.
Richard Linklater's 1991 debut, Slacker, defined more than just a genre: It promoted a way of life in the myriad conspiracy theorists, used-bookstore habitués, and wannabe musicians it chronicled over 24 hours in Austin, Texas. A deluge of slacker movies followed, both mainstream and independent, designed to appeal to jaded-yet-aimless members of Generation X: Reality Bites (slackers in Texas looking for their first jobs), Clerks (slackers working at a New Jersey convenience store), Kicking and Screaming (slackers who speak like characters in a Whit Stillman film), the Wayne's World franchise (slackers with a public access TV show), and Trainspotting (slackers on heroin)—to name just a few. What these films lacked in action and plot twists, they made up for by making the very act of doing nothing look like the best possible way to spend your time. Slacking seemed genuinely fun—so much free time to discuss Return of the Jedi or coded drug references in Scooby Doo!—and even kind of sexy (sex, in the slacker paradigm, has two major things going for it: It's free, and you don't have to leave the bed).
And after a decade of dissipation, slacker films appear to be enjoying a renaissance. No less of a slacker auteur than Kevin Smith chose 2006 to release Clerks 2. (Never mind that the ill-conceived sequel drained each character of his original charms.) And a pair of low-budget, limited-release indie films, both just out on DVD, show that slacking is very much still alive. Mutual Appreciation and The Puffy Chair are so faithful to their predecessors that neither deviates from the tried-and-true slacker formula of post-collegiate white kids wrestling with their McJobs and love lives, all set to an alt soundtrack of bands like Death Cab for Cutie and Spoon.
The influence of the slacker canon is visible right away in Mutual Appreciation, which director Andrew Bujalski shot on the same 16mm black-and-white film as Clerks. The story revolves around Alan, a recent transplant from Boston to Williamsburg, Brooklyn. He's unemployed (ostensibly living off credit cards), has a laconic way of speaking, and tends to wear sweaters with rips in the armpits. He and his set decorate their barren apartments with 12-inch record sleeves and spend their time talking about why they hate math rock and comparing each other to Bob Dylan—all while lounging on beds. (I had to stop counting at six such scenes. If they're not lying on beds, they're draped horizontally on couches, as if sitting upright is far too great a task.) The only thing Alan is serious about, naturally, is his music—which, in a concert scene set at the Brooklyn venue Northsix, proves to be the most generic indie rock imaginable.
Northsix also figures in The Puffy Chair, a film populated by slightly older and less carefree versions of the same urban hipsters. Writer-director brothers Jay and Mark Duplass give us Josh, a commitment-phobic musician turned booking agent. He has a supremely needy girlfriend, Emily, with whom he regularly engages in the most accurate and cringe-inducing baby talk ever captured on film. The couple embarks on a road trip to pick up a Lay-Z-Boy Josh has purchased on eBay for his father's birthday. Also along for the ride is Rhett, Josh's hippieish brother, who uses words like honor and respect with an alarming frequency. Together, they attempt to sneak into single motel rooms and navigate unexpected detours while endlessly processing their issues with each other, with life, and with the world at large—it's all fair game.
Both films' directors stay true to the slacker movie template by making their hapless protagonists somehow irresistible to women, even when they are shamelessly hitting on their best friend's girlfriend (Mutual Appreciation) or chatting up a stranger in a darkened movie theater (The Puffy Chair). Regardless of questionable hygiene or rampant self-obsession, slackers never lack in love interests.
But that's also a problem with the genre: Slackers are always childlike men, and the objects of their affection always women with their acts together, as if slacking is a uniquely male vocation. Women in these movies are never equals; they may be able to parse the finer points of Josie and the Pussycats, but the issues that really occupy them aren't pop culture ephemera, but marriage, money, and babies. If male slackers are stuck in a permanent state of adolescence, all deep thoughts and long talks and sleeping in, then women are agents of growing up and getting a grip, two things that could harsh any slacker's mellow.
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.
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.