A first-time feature film about a failed indie rocker, his beautiful girlfriend and his sanctimonious nature-boy brother on a road trip: There are so many ways that The Puffy Chair could have gone wrong. But it doesn't not once. Like Funny Ha Ha, the casually raw 2002 faux-cinéma-vérité indie about a bunch of shiftless twentysomethings, Puffy Chair uses simple, unadorned dialogue and intimate, off-the-cuff performances to get at the underlying issues. Which is to say: This is a good little movie.
The opening two scenes paint the film's central relationship in deft strokes. Josh (Mark Duplass, who also co-wrote the script with his director brother) is a confused fuck-up whose music career is dead. Despite the aura of shaggy-dog doofusness, Josh's girlfriend Emily (Kathryn Aselton) remains attracted to him. When he plans a road trip to deliver a La-Z-Boy recliner to his father, Emily wants to come. She cooks Josh dinner, and they baby-talk their way through expressions of affection. Then, when Josh takes a mid-meal call against Emily's protests, the evening tanks.
The relationship, we see, is not working. But the following morning, Josh shows up at Emily's window with the apotheosis of apologetic movie seductions: a boom box hefted above his head, playing a love song. (The Peter Gabriel CD is at Emily's apartment, so the song is not "In Your Eyes" one of many intelligent choices made by the Duplass brothers, who know when to stop.) It's a cheap trick, but both Josh and Emily know it, which makes it worth slightly more. And then Josh says, "I love you and I want you to come with me." And of course, she does.
They hop into the van, the credits roll, and, somewhere south of New York but north of Virginia, the couple visits Rhett (Rhett Wilkins), Josh's brother. This is a character whose hair says it all: nearly shaven head dramatically underscored by a dark, thick, hippie-swami beard. (How many times have you seen that at the yoga studio?) Rhett's innocent eyes seem to want to love everything and everybody. Emily swallows it whole, but you can't blame her; next to Josh, Rhett's warmth has the welcome softness of...a puffy chair.
It may not seem like much, but the setup works. Rhett triangulates against Josh and Emily, making quick work of stirring up their shit. At times he looks better than Josh, and you can smell the wood burning in Emily's head; at other times he's as feckless as his brother, only with a different set of defenses. It takes Emily longer than you'd like to unearth the truth about Rhett, but that's Emily a romantic who needs and wants to believe in that kind of love, even if (or maybe because) she doesn't have it.
What's wonderful about The Puffy Chair is that each of the three principals is exposed in surprising but inevitable ways. Josh turns out to have a backbone and a sense of integrity. Emily, caught up in a fantasy of what she wants from her relationship, can't be honest with herself about what she has. And Rhett's woozy world of universal adoration turns out to have its limits, as when mere bad vibes emanating from an object are enough to send him into an act of violence. "This van is contaminated," he says at one point, and one senses he's referring to the toxic energy festering between Emily and Josh. But instead he means the chair.
The impressive script by Mark and Jay Duplass is bold in its simplicity. It's just three people on the road, sleeping in motels, eating junk, killing time but it's really about what lies beneath, the relationships and the feelings behind the relationships. In other words, The Puffy Chair is about people trying to figure out themselves and their lives, trying to get what they want without knowing what they want, or what they have. The Duplasses are adept at wringing meaning from regular life, rather than resorting to trumped-up acts of drama.
They're great in the editing room too. Most scenes end exactly where they should, on a complex (and enjoyably wobbly) lingering note. With a refreshingly slender 85-minute running time, The Puffy Chair also masters the graceful exit: Get the job done and get out. And the gorgeously rich ending the very best thing about the film wakes us from a dream in which we had unknowingly become complicit. It's the first time since Before Sunset that a film's conclusion has done so much with so little, and it augurs well for the Duplass brothers' future.