Slacker Fest: Funny Ha Ha
Learning boundaries with the most influential slacker film you've never heard of
Welcome to Slacker Fest, where we document our research and analysis of mass media’s “slacker” archetype, part of our effort to broaden the genre with a slacker film of our own. Find our master list of entries here. Previous entry: Actual People
Funny Haha is a look at the ungrounded, anxious “between time” that bridges school and “career.” Think of it a spiritual sequel to Actual People (though it predates it by two decades and helped inspire it), as it picks up following a female “slacker” right at college graduation, where the latter leaves off.
I had never heard of this film before, so I was shocked to see how influential it was. It’s considered the founding piece of the “mumblecore” film genre (don’t worry, I wasn’t aware of it either, and we’ll get into that later), and it’s a feast of excruciating, funny awkwardness made years before that form of comedy became an American staple.
I’m so happy I found this film. Let’s dive in, and hopefully you’ll see why.
Release year: 2002
Premise: Marnie, a recent college graduate living in Boston, slogs through, as Sean Burns from WBUR elegantly sums up, “an aimless summer of go-nowhere jobs and sub-par suitors.”
Auteur: Andrew Bujalski, in his debut film, which he also acts brilliantly in. I haven’t seen any of his later work but may have to. His thesis advisor was Chantal fucking Ackerman, only one of the greatest filmmakers to ever live.
(Sidenote: The main actor, Kate Dollenmayer, acted in Bujalski’s first two films as an amateur, made a couple shorts of her own, and then basically peaced out to become a professor. This is the type of amateur art that warms my heart.)
Marnie, our slacker
Alex, boy she’s in love with and who alternates between ignoring her and tormenting her
Dave, her friend with a serious live-in girlfriend who nonetheless makes brazen passes at her
Mitchell (played by Bujalski), a coworker who, when Marnie puts him in the friend zone, also becomes a whiny tormentor to her
Meet the slacker: Marnie
Marnie meets us by barging drunk into a tattoo shop, determined to get some ink, but quickly (and rather easily) being talked out it by the tattoo artist. Soon after, we learn (as she tells a friend, chuckling) that she’s been fired for failing to say that she likes her job quickly enough after asking for a raise.
It’s this floating non-conviction that gives her a slacker air, and tattoos aren’t her only spontaneous non-decisions: Marnie’s the type of person who can be walking home and, on a dime, let friends whisk her into a car to go to a diner party. As a friend notes, it’s an enchanted way to live. But with Marnie, we quickly see its shadow side: how it hinders a full slacker existence.
This lesson is especially salient when we see Marnie agonize with the more emotional domain of romantic relationships. Risk-averse and afraid to get hurt, she spends the film equal parts rejected and used by dudes left and right—to the point that she fantasizes about becoming a nun.
Her world: a town of drifting, clinging post-grads
It doesn’t help that Marnie attracts all the try-hards in town, as if her vacuum of conviction pulls them in. Unlike Riley’s guys, the men in Marnie’s life aren’t aloof and detached. They’re grasping even harder than her, with as much uncertainty and with a desperate aggression that feels predatory.
They’re not unique, either: everyone in this film is a sloppy mess flailing for control. Especially the most brazen strivers. Everyone is sidestepping and mind-fucking each other at every turn, never saying precisely what they mean. (kind of like a workplace!)
Marnie, if anything, is the sanest. And what little character growth she experiences is learning that she shouldn’t have to put up with everyone’s shit–a testament to how obnoxious your life can get if you constantly let others dictate it to you.
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What does she want, and what’s in the way?
Marnie wants self-knowledge: to get in touch with what she wants, what brings her joy, and her own sense of “purpose.”
In the way is her fear of displeasing others or setting boundaries. Her extreme malleability goes beyond spontaneous fun (the persona her friends project onto her)—it leads her to make choices she knows aren’t right for her.
How does the film define a “slacker” in broader terms?
I’d say Funny Haha defines “slacker” as analogous to “drifter,” someone without set ambitions or a set direction. “Drifting” has negative connotations in our culture, though I think the film sees things in a more nuanced way.
Could anyone other than a White dude pull off slacking in this story world?
Though there are pretty much only White people in this film, I think in theory anyone in this world could be a slacker–not least of all because everyone in this film is drifting in some way or another. Refreshingly, no one plays a “voice of reason” in Funny Haha–and those who try (mostly the men) are the ones who turn out to be most unreasonable.
One note: like the other few female slackers I’ve encountered in the genre, Marnie is in the Dante self-loathing mold. I don’t see this story-world making room for female slacking in a more brazen mold.
Does the film “approve” of slacking? Is it a broader anti-job statement?
I wouldn’t blame you for thinking it doesn’t. “Isn’t this a film about becoming MORE proactive? Marnie’s big change is to make a list of goals,” you say. “You hate goals!”
First of all, no I don’t. But I hear you on this feeling like a slacker-rehabilitated tale. However, I think Marnie is learning to be more proactive and assertive specifically in figuring out what she wants for herself and in setting boundaries against external expectations.
Effective slacking takes a lot more intention and self-assurance than you’d think–the best slackers are people with a strong sense of who they are and a stronger spine to flick away the haters. Marnie is especially apt for this arc, since women tend to be socialized to bend over backwards to please others.
In the final scene, Marnie’s line to Alex (“It’s a beautiful day, beautiful sandwiches, let’s just enjoy our unobstructed view of these fucking dorks”) declares her actualized inner slacker peace. And then, in one of the most satisfying endings ever, she bats away his bullshit—which she had been putting up with all film—the same way you bat away a shitty boss after you’ve given yourself permission to not feel ashamed.
So yes, this film approves of slacking, while presenting us with the koan that it demands a good deal of intention and practice.
What does the film see as “the enemy” in broader terms?
People pleasing, especially when taken to the extreme that you’re gaslighting yourself–laughing off people being shitty to you like your life is an ironic joke not worth treating with respect.
Walt Wiltman’s favorite line
A.O. Scott’s (real, non-fictional) take
“At one point, [Marnie] makes a to-do list, and its lack of ambition -- ‘spend more time outdoors,’ ‘make friends with Jackie,’ ‘learn to play chess’ -- is both funny and sad.”
Yes, aspiring to friendship, health, and hobbies is sooo sad and laughable and unambitious and pathetic! HAHA! WHAT A LOSER.
I’m gonna cut dude some slack because this is from twenty years ago, and (almost) everyone is less of an asshole today than they were twenty years ago. And, not gonna lie, I could have written that exact line five years ago, let alone twenty. But still: what an asshole.
Are there any slacker-like innovations in the film’s technique?
Here’s where we dive into the genre known as mumblecore--defined by Wikipedia as “characterized by naturalistic acting and (sometimes improvised) dialogue, low budgets, an emphasis on dialogue over plot, and a focus on the personal relationships of young adults.”
You’ll note it has a lot of overlap with techniques that I have been labeling as “slacker-like” in this series.
Plot / Story/ Writing
What I love most about Funny Haha’s treatment of story is its use of in medina res, ie. starting the story late and ending it early, plopping you in the middle of the action. Both the beginning and ending scenes of this film have a simple efficiency that’s graceful and elegant. The ending, especially, is a chef’s kiss—a simple “nuh-uh” and head-shake complete Marnie’s arc and we cut to credits. It’s like Whiplash’s ending, but even more to the point.
In between those scenes, the film is very vignette-like, as mumblecore films are known to be—something they share with slacker films.
There’s also, of course, the signature mumblecore dialogue: mumbled, awkward, seemingly improvised (though it’s often rigorously rehearsed). Characters in Funny Haha talk the way insecure people talk at parties, over-relying on quippy, dismissive jokes. They feel very much like real people I know.
The biggest thing to me, though, is that there’s no BIG emotion in the story, no grandiosity in the acting, no scenes that feel like EPIC turning points. This is a movie that’s content to let the story run its course while using its inside voice. But Marnie DOES undergo clear growth, and you can feel that she’s a changed person at the end. The fact that it sneaks up on you is the delightful genius of this film.
Cinematography / Camera use / Color / Mise-en-scéne
Funny Haha is filmed in 16mm film, which gives it a little bit of a “lo-fi” visual aesthetic. The camera doesn’t call much attention to itself. The locations, all around Boston, are “dull” (as described by a critic at the time). It all adds to the film’s unassuming attitude.
Sound / Music
The film’s mono sound also has a bit of a “lo-fi” feel.
What would I want to keep for our slacker film? What do I want to leave or push?
To me, more than anything, Funny Haha serves as a reminder that scenes, character arcs, and emotions don’t have to be big to have an impact and feel relatable. This is a thread in many movies I’ve enjoyed over the last year (slacker fest films for sure, but also check out any film by Yasujiro Ozu to see a master of making the understated feel incredibly emotional), and something that I personally struggle with as a writer.
Also, it’s always good to know when to start and when to end, to trust the audience to piece things together with less context than you think they need.
Mumblecore as an aesthetic is very “in” thanks to Greta Gerwig and the Duplass brothers, just to name a couple. If I use it as a model, I feel like our film will feel like every indie movie made right now. There’s nothing wrong with that per se, but it would make it harder for it to stand out.
It’s tempting, though, because it’s a very budget-friendly aesthetic. It merits further study.
Funny Haha, that “your favorite filmmakers’ favorite film” kind of movie, may be my unexpected favorite from the genre. There’s something about it that creeps into your subconscious and makes you laugh and feel horrified and tender all at once. At the very least, it was my favorite movie discovery from 2023.
Next entry: Harold and Kumar go to White Castle