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Paper or plastic?

Baghead keeps itself covered
By BRETT MICHEL  |  July 30, 2008
3.0 3.0 Stars

VIDEO: The trailer for Baghead

Baghead | Written and Directed by Jay and Mark Duplass | with Ross Partridge, Steve Zissis, Greta Gerwig, and Elise Muller | a Sony Pictures Classics Release | 84 minutes
During the opening scene of the new film by Jay and Mark Duplass, the brothers whose 2005 film The Puffy Chair has been lumped into the “mumblecore” movement (a loose-knit indie-film collective of young actors and/or filmmakers like Joe Swanberg and Boston’s Andrew Bujalski who met on the festival circuit and now cross-pollinate one another’s projects), four friends sit at an underground film festival watching an awful-looking low-budget production, We Are Naked, starring a pair of actors who are, well, naked. (If you’ve ever attended a festival, you’ll appreciate the way the post-screening Q&A session skewers the pompous circle jerk between audience and “talent.”) Agreeing that the movie they just viewed “sucks,” the foursome conclude that they could easily make a better film themselves. Still, that doesn’t stop them from kissing the filmmaker’s ass while trying to sneak into his after-party. Ah, LA.

Whether the Duplass brothers belong to the mumblecore mix is open to debate (and indeed, Swanberg and Bujalski would be happy if the term –– which refers to the way characters seem to speak before they know what they want to say –– simply went away), but they’re savvy enough to recognize that the supposed genre is ripe for spoofing. They’ve constructed a compact meta-movie laced with knowing winks.

Filled with alcohol-fueled plans of penning a screenplay populated with plum roles for themselves, the four pals, unsuccessful actors all (surprise!), decide to drive to a remote cabin for the weekend. What will the film be about? “Love!” declares schlubby Chad (Steve Zissus), who wants Michelle (Greta Gerwig, from Swanberg’s LOL and Hannah Takes the Stairs and his upcoming Nights and Weekends, which she co-directed), the vacuous young twentysomething just off the bus from the Midwest, to be his “movie girlfriend.” Of course, Chad secretly pines for her to be his actual girlfriend. The youngest of the group (the rest are pushing 40), Michelle actually has eyes for Chad’s pal Matt (Ross Partridge), the handsome alpha male with “Elvis hair” who’s been dating Catherine (Elise Muller) on and off for 11 years. Neither this nor his knowledge of Chad’s hopes stops Matt from planning to sleep with Michelle, who deflects Chad’s advances by telling him that “You’re like my best friend . . . or my brother.”

As if that weren’t enough to make Chad miserable, his plan for a movie about love is jettisoned in favor of one involving a killer lurking in the woods with a bag over his head that’s deemed to be much more marketable. (One look at Baghead’s disingenuous trailer and you’ll realize that distributor Sony Pictures Classics, which acquired the film this past January at Sundance, agrees.) At around this point, an actual “baghead” turns up. Is there really a crazed psychopath on the loose, or is one of the friends pulling a gag? (The supposed “killer” wears a grocery bag — he’s less Jason Voorhees than Unknown Comic.) Or could it be the Duplass brothers themselves who’re engaged in a canny satire of misdirection? Audience members lulled into laughter by a talented cast of relative unknowns who play into the deliberately scruffy, “indie” presentation might be surprised to find their laughs replaced by screams –– quite the trick in a film that withholds its true intentions as skillfully as its characters mask their own.

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