I’ve got no game.
— Chad (Steve Zissis)
Chad (Steve Zissis) has a crush on Michelle (Greta Gerwig). Chubby and cheerful, in that sort of hardworking, forced manner that only makes him seem sad, he hopes against hope that she’ll see him for who he is, her one true love.
It may be that Chad is pondering his plight as he sits with Michelle at an indie film in which a couple wrangles over their romantic status (“I love you!” “I don’t believe you!”), until, unable to make sense of their own words, they strip naked in the driveway, a sure sign of commitment. At film’s end, viewers applaud and the lanky maker (Jett Garner) takes questions. Was any of the film improvised? “A lot of those scenes were completely real,” he asserts solemnly. Mmmm, nod his listeners, suitably impressed.
So begins the Duplass brothers’ Baghead, a mumblecoreish meditation on the increasingly permeable boundaries between movies and life. Thwarted in their efforts to get into the after-party (“We need to be on a list”), Chad and Michelle, along with his best friend Matt (Ross Partridge) and Catherine (Elise Muller), decide to make a decision. All four sometimes-working actors, they head off to a cabin in Big Bear, where they will embark on the boys’ “brilliant idea,” to write and shoot a film in a weekend. It will be real, maybe even completely.
Their adventure takes shape slowly, though it’s clear right away that each participant has an angle, all having to do with sex and none quite comporting with the others. As much as Chad makes it clear during their drinking games that he wants to be with Michelle, she makes it equally plain that she’s more interested in Matt, a more conventionally handsome leading man. Tempted but also reminded of his longstanding (11 years) “soulmate” relationship with Catherine, Matt is caught in something like a middle, and feeling a bit of loyalty to the tediously needy Chad as well. The first evening winds down into Chad’s drunken pseudo-canned confession: “We don’t have any motherfucking ideas, this movie isn’t gonna happen. I do know that Michelle is fine: she’s blowing my mind!” In a kind of thrall to his own desire, Chad misses the look on his beloved’s face signaling his courageously stated weekend plans are essentially over.
The film now turns its focus to generic problems, literally and figuratively. When Michelle has a nightmare featuring a man who appears scarily in her bedroom, wearing a bag on his head, Chad takes up the cause of her brilliance, insisting that they make a horror movie about just such a monstrous figure. Because you’ve seen Michelle’s perception of the night’s scare as maybe-not a dream, the scene is now set for some predictable tensions: what if the baghead exists, that his popping up in windows or at the foots of beds is not just tired or distracted minds playing tricks, but the nefarious design of a serial killer? Worse, for Chad, what if he’s unable to convince Michelle, and soon, that she will be “his,” as he so passionately pledges his troth? Even Chad’s manipulations are pathetic, as he determines that he should play Michelle’s boyfriend and not her brother in the plot they’re concocting, so as to pave the way for his
In mixing genres and parodic objects, Baghead offers various insights into the arrested psyches of these wannabe actors. While it might be tempting to sympathize with single players at particular points, the film adroitly and repeatedly shifts gears, so that none of them is entirely blameless, naïve, or even conscious of his or her effects on the others. As they behave much like the throbbing-hearted teens in most slasher films, so blindly devoted to their own lusty needs that they overlook the abject dangers lurking in dark corners (or in the driveway), the artists are both laughable and delicate creatures. (When one victim to be is discovered and embarrassed mid-masturbation, the movie does and then doesn’t critique such silly plots, revealing the complications of leering, jeering, and anticipating varieties of climax.)
Whether or not the film is actually enacting the improvisation it both parodies and emulates, the more compelling idea has to do with their interconnectedness, the performance and performative self-consciousness of improv, the multiple illusions of authenticity, the moral claims made by those performing “truth.” As the foursome splits up and loses coherence (as they must, per generic cliché), the film’s sequential horrors (screamy action, fearful encounters in the dark, sharp knives, handheld chaos and plenty of reaction shots) are both obvious and absurd, meta-commentary on the project that is in itself a meta-commentary.
Cunningly integrated, these aesthetic and thematic layers do in fact produce surprises. The trick is that the overtly clever turns, the look-at-me plot twisties, are less significant in the end than the more mundane business. The four leads inhabit strangely similar worlds, despite their seeming designations as easily cast character “types.” After all Chad’s pining and Catherine’s frustration, Matt’s posturing and Michelle’s confusion, they sort themselves out, each adapting to a part that might or might not have been scripted. It’s the question in Baghdead that can’t be answered: what’s the difference between what’s “completely real” and what’s only maybe partly real? And it only seems trivial.