The distance is quite simply much too far for me to row.
It seems farther than ever before.
—Death Cab for Cutie, “Transatlanticism”
With any independent film, you walk in ready to grant leniency, for lack of experience or budget or something. The Puffy Chair requires no such sacrifice. The Duplass brothers—director Jay and writer-star Mark—manage coherent storytelling, strong performances, and well crafted production.
Josh (Duplass), his brother Rhett (Rhett Wilkins), and his girlfriend Emily (Kathryn Aselton ) take a road trip South, on a mission to pick up the titular Lay-Z-Boy that he’s won on eBay, a surprise birthday gift for the brothers’ father. An original chair of this sort meant a lot to Dad and the family, and so the replica becomes an emblem of the boys’ immaturity and the comforts of home, which makes the journey to reclaim that symbol all the more problematic and compelling. During their journey, the threesome interacts with their changing surroundings and one another, following in the road movie tradition (particularly Two for the Road), whilst tapping into the “depths of a dude.”
Unlike the similarly themed Garden State, however (which hovers as an obvious point of comparison), The Puffy Chair does not go in for high concept composition shots or stabs at absurdist humor. Rather, it stays on an affable, earnest track. Sure, there’s lots of indie rock on the soundtrack and Duplass’ lanky build and attire recall Zach Braff’s, but the handheld camera, tight shots, and natural lighting create the illusion of “authenticity” so effectively that the characters are more congenial than arch.
Their roles are familiar. Josh is the favorite son, while Rhett remains the disappointment and outcast (evident by Josh sharing a beer with his father, while Rhett is relegated to the yard with the dog—or worse yet, Mom). Though
Rhett’s incompetence and wanderlust are endearing, he’s an ideal foil for Josh to hold up to his dissatisfied girlfriend and himself, as if to say, “You think I’m drifting? Check this guy out.” Mostly laidback and funny, Josh also appears to have something to prove. Sure, he may be a failed indie-rocker turned “booking agent,” but at least he’s not sitting in a grassy lot making homemade lizard documentaries, like his brother.
At the same time, Josh’s own choices on the road exasperate and inconvenience his traveling partners. His scheme to save $10 by checking into a motel as only one guest instead of three results in a traditional comedic scenario, laced with acerbic self-discovery. Whether or not his dignity is worth saving 10 bucks extends to the film’s larger conflict, concerning his unwillingness to cut corners in his own life.
That Josh feels compelled to defend his choices results from his desire to please Emily, almost in spite of himself. The film’s first scene shows them talking the way couples do, with a vague dialect of sweetie speak they assume only with one another. It’s not as obnoxious as it sounds, as it marks that point of no return phase in any long-term relationship, when you just have that way you speak to one another, half-schmoopey, half-joking. While they giggle and chat, Josh occasionally air-drums with a chicken drumstick. We laugh; she’s annoyed. This scene embodies everything you need to know about their relationship: he loves making music, she’s frustrated with his lack of focus. The road trip then becomes an occasion for an extended game of relationship chicken: is Josh going to grow up and commit or is Emily going to accept him and stop criticizing?
While this question isn’t exactly breaking new ground for romantic comedies, the ways that we come to identify with these characters is distinct. When Lloyd holds up a boom box outside Emily’s window, doing his best Lloyd Dobler, we get the joke. And it asks us to think about the movie romances against which we always compare our own. As Death Cab’s “Transatlanticism” pours into Emily’s window, it’s a subtle contrast to Lloyd’s selection of “In Your Eyes.” Where Peter Gabriel is adulating, Death Cab is searching. Singing, “I need you so much closer” is not a cry for intimacy; it’s an acknowledgment of an emotional gap. And that acknowledgment is about all that Josh can give her, no matter what she hears.
As much as you like to watch Josh and Emily when they’re happy, their problems manifest in painful, passive-aggressive stabs at one another. Josh’s father advises that Josh already knows everything he’s going to know about Emily, and he has to make his choice based on knowledge, instead of waiting for something really good or really bad to happen. This advice, dispensed on a picturesque porch in an Atlanta drawl by Duplass’ real-life dad, encourages the audience to do the same about the movie.