You don’t need $150 million to make a movie; just ask Mark and Jay Duplass. Their first film cost them…three bucks. Granted, their This Is John was only eight minutes long, but probably more enjoyable to watch than Hancock. What helped get the Duplass Brothers almost into the big time was their more recent picture, The Puffy Chair, which premiered at Sundance in 2005 and won the audience award at the SXSW Festival that year as well as “Best of the Fest” kudos at Edinburgh. The reception for that film was all they needed to continue in the trade.
The Duplass Brothers’ latest, Baghead, is a sweet, offbeat tale punctuated by four actors somewhat below the prestige level of Tom Cruise. It spoofs the horror genre and, dare one say, even the entire concept of making motion pictures. The folks-next-door characters, all deserving audience empathy, provide this film with all the appeal it needs.
Chad (Steve Zissis), his best friend Matt (Ross Partridge), Chad’s girlfriend Michelle (Greta Gerwig) and Matt’s main squeeze Catherine (Elise Muller) watch a made-for-three-dollars L.A. underground movie, I Am Naked, giving them the idea to write their own movie while taking all the roles themselves. They head for a rural cabin for the weekend to create the venture, though they’re all more interested in meeting other, more personal needs. The pudgy, balding Chad knows that Michelle looks upon him as a brother, or best friend, but hopes that she will fall in love with him over the weekend. For her part, Michelle has eyes and then some for the handsomer—but not as funny or cute—Matt. Approaching 40, Catherine, dating Matt on and off for 11 years, plans to go all out to get a commitment from Matt lest he fall for a younger woman, while Matt is pondering whether to betray his pal and encourage Michelle’s attentions. Michelle has a nightmare about a scary man with a paper bag over his head, and the group decides to make a horror movie—until art takes on the dimensions of life when an actual baghead appears in the woods armed with a huge knife.
There’s not much here plot-wise. Baghead will remind viewers of The Blair Witch Project, which was also shot on video. This Duplass Brothers film is even sketchier. The fun comes from the actors, who have been encouraged to improvise. Their characters are all likeable, flaws notwithstanding, and when one seems to become a victim of the title baghead, we in the audience are likely to be dismayed. The quartet are well-drawn, with the adorable Gerwig able to make even drunken burps seem sexy and Belushi lookalike Zissis coming across as a cuddly teddy bear with self-image issues.
Baghead is for a select audience that does not require high-concept plots, slick camerawork or lush production values. Most of the action takes place within the cabin, making this accessible for the legitimate stage, should the Duplass Brothers want to go that route as well. The directors stress their commitment to “mumblecore,” a subgenre characterized by ultra-low-budget production. As Mark Duplass states in the press notes, “It doesn’t matter if you have $15,000 or $5 billion, just point the camera, get your friends together, and make a movie.” Hmmmm. $15,000? That amount might have turned Baghead from a mumblecore archetype into a slick, commercial property—and we would have lost something in translation.