TKO: The Puffy Chair vs. Paper Heart

Dear Millicent,

Forgive my absence–I have been afloat in a Netflix sea, as well as the Baltic (seriously! Was in Denmark: I have seen more full length fur coats than I ever imagined possible in this life).  As I woozily recovered from jet lag and a stodgy January, I leaned heavily on my Netflix, which is where this odd matchup comes from.  Both are movies that wear their hoodies on their sleeve: one to great irritation, the other to surprising depth.  I have given them this imaginary fistfight because I think they started with similar intentions, or at least are depending on a similar audience (more hoodies).  In the past, we have talked about the line between preciousness and charm, the twee and the supple, and I think we have it again here: the firecracker and the real deal.


The Puffy Chair is a mumblecore film (a term I just learned last week, and am not sure if it is a noun or an adjective).  According to Wikipedia, it is a niche that arrived in the early 2000s focusing on twenty-somethings figuring out their lives, often played by non-actors with improvised scripts.  This sounds like a horrible idea, and something that would get my hate on in only the way that very special things can.   But it’s fantastic.  I think I feel about mumblecore the way most reviewers treat Avatar: I cannot believe it didn’t piss me off.

The Puffy Chair focuses on a guy going to pick up an Ebay purchase with his girlfriend and his brother.  Nobody is exactly likable, but neither is anybody a full-on loser.  The film doesn’t rest on charm, and does a smart job of acknowledging how annoying and subtle the privilege of middle class youth is.  The questions are big, and the narrative is strong and littered with all the prevalent real life propsetting of a modern un-Meyers project.  But, there is only one dick joke, and no unrealistic tidiness or mess.  There are so many places this film could sag or break, and it just doesn’t do it.  It leans to the Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind side of human emotion, but with no tricks to brightly illuminate the path.  While I love Kaufman’s well turned tricks, what we have here is another kind of naked animal, and it looks just like us.

I’m worried that as I yap about TPC, you will give it a try and sigh loudly in disgust.  The cute voices, the clean Adidas sneakers, the fact that it starts in NYC…all I can say is that the characters get weak, humiliated, and unmasterful in their lives, and those sneakers don’t protect a soul.

And then, there is Paper Heart, which I had expected to be charming and realistic, the new take on the romance.  I happily sighed as I watched the promo in the theaters, but upon arrival, I couldn’t watch more than 20 minutes of it (thus my critique is under-informed, yet sure).  The firecrackerness of it made my stomach churn.  Instead of an envelope of a generation being pulled open, soft guts out, this movie is sealed cellophane.  Are you in your twenties and a comedian in Los Angeles? If not, these house parties and unmade beds are not for you.  Since everybody is a a little unglamorous, you are supposed to have one of two reactions: if you are trying to get out of your small town: I want to live there like them; and if you are currently in high school:  They are just like me, the future is where it’s at,  and love is a poky little thing that can happen. It is almost this generation’s Reality Bites, but a little more offensive because it believes in its mission. From the twenty minutes I could stomach, the shaky camera and real life interactions were only people saying things out loud, proud of their voice.

The titles sum up the distinction: Paper Heart is so wispy and pitch perfect–who wouldn’t want to see that movie? And thus you get a package of youth in love that is all glitter (with the glitter being that there is no glitter).  Whereas The Puffy Chair is one of the most un-enticing titles I have heard in a long time, and yet, like it’s film, it is honest and successful in its representation. There really is no glitter.  Mumblecore might have fallen on that hardest of narrative tricks: the navel-gaze that is interesting to other people, and a realism that elevates the audience through specificity.