My Favorite Movies – The Puffy Chair (2006)

5 May

By Tanner Smith

I’ve made it no secret on this blog that I’m a fan of Mark & Jay Duplass (aka the Duplass Brothers), pioneers of micro-budget filmmaking. From directorial feats like Baghead to Cyrus, from producing gems like Safety Not Guaranteed to 7 Days, they make a great impression by making small films feel important.

And it began with their debut feature: “The Puffy Chair.”

After making no-budget improvised short films (some of which were accepted at the Sundance Film Festival) with very few resources, brothers Jay & Mark decided to make a feature film with the same spirit and passion that they put into the shorts. (And their parents, who are credited as executive producers, loaned them $15,000 to shoot it.) The result is “The Puffy Chair,” an indie-dramedy feature that focuses on relationship issues–for example, it’s one thing to say you’re going to commit to your significant other; it’s another thing to actually commit. (How did Kevin Smith’s “Clerks” put it? “Sh*t or get off the pot.”)

It’s as indie and as “mumblecore” as it gets, with then-unknowns casting their girlfriends and friends (and paying them $100 a day), using minimal camera equipment, and improvising a good chunk of the dialogue. But I’ll say this (and I don’t know if it’s controversial or not)–when it comes to the indie-mumblecore era that was prominent in the 2000s, I get so much more out of “The Puffy Chair” than I ever do with others. (All respect to mumblecore grads like Andrew Bujalski and Joe Swanberg, whose works I also admire–I like their later works better than their mumblecore entries.) Much of it has to do with the likability of the actors (which include Mark Duplass himself and his then-girlfriend/now-wife Katie Aselton, both of whom co-starred in the FX series “The League” and collaborated on Aselton’s feature film Black Rock, in two of the three leading roles), the universal theme of relationship trauma, the raggedy nature of the filmmaking, and some good laughs to balance out the emotional elements.

Mark Duplass and Katie Aselton star as Josh and Emily, a couple in their mid-20s. They’ve been together for years, but now, they’re simply coasting, with no real future plans in mind. Josh is waiting for either something really good or really bad to happen to decide for him whether or not he should propose–while Emily wants him to propose. In the film’s prologue, we see these two having fun together before she gets angry at his subtle ignorance and storms off, leading to him pulling another charming move (imitating Lloyd Dobler in “Say Anything”–except he left his Peter Gabriel CD at home) and inviting her on a road trip with him from New York to Atlanta for his father’s birthday.

On the way, they pick up Rhett (Rhett Wilkins), Josh’s neo-hippie brother. (This is news to Emily–she knew they were visiting him; she didn’t know he’d be the third wheel on this road trip.) And they’re also going to pick up a purple La-Z-Boy recliner (the titular “puffy chair”) that resembles one Josh & Rhett’s father had a long time ago and Josh purchased on eBay–they plan to deliver it as their dad’s birthday present. Being a road-trip movie, you expect things to go wrong and they do–Josh keeps showing his well-meaning but constant inefficiency (which causes friction amongst him and Emily), a motel night-stay goes wrong, the chair is terribly worn-out (can you get a chair reupholstered within 24 hours for a few hundred dollars?), Rhett meets a woman named Amber (Julie Fischer) which then leads to further complication, and so on. By the time they reach their destination at the end of the film, Josh has to make a decision with Emily, whether to grow with her or stop kidding himself for both their sakes.

The film is all about Josh & Emily’s relationship trauma, and we even get hints of some of the things that caused the complications–Josh used to be a musician (now he’s a booking agent) and his touring schedule resulted in much time away from Emily, and it’s also hinted that she caused him to leave his band. Is there a future for them? (A road trip may just be what they need to truly evaluate where they are at this point…) At times this dysfunctional-couple dynamic is painful to watch, but it’s always realistic and it’s also very funny, particularly in the ways the three main characters work off each other, the misadventures they go on together (particularly at the first motel, when they try to get a cheap room), and especially what the puffy chair in question must go through before the trip is over.

It’s all beautifully handled, and the ending to “The Puffy Chair” is both satisfying and bittersweet–though, you may not be all for it upon initial viewing; when you stop to think about it, however, it seemed very inevitable.

“The Puffy Chair” premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in 2005 and was released theatrically in 2006. Little did Mark & Jay Duplass know that it would pave the way for a bright and successful career for both of them (and for Katie Aselton, who’s now a prominent character actress) and light the way for budding filmmakers they inspired.

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