Directed by Lena Dunham
Tiny Furniture is the 24-year-old Lena Dunham’s acclaimed satiric portrait of someone very much like her—a graduate of Oberlin who is dumped by her college boyfriend and returns home to Tribeca to figure out what to do with her life. She stars in it, wrote it, and directed it, and since it began to be shown at film festivals last spring, Dunham has hit the jackpot. Tiny Furniture has earned her the kind of reviews she might have written herself under a pseudonym on Amazon, a five-page profile in the New Yorker, and a pilot for an HBO series produced by Judd Apatow (Hollywood’s hottest maker of comedies).
Dunham’s film is a movie tinier than the furniture in the title (which refers to artsy photographs taken by the lead character’s mother, who is played by Dunham’s mother, who is an artsy photographer). Aura wanders around her mother’s Tribeca loft, argues with her sister, smokes pot with her affected lifelong friend, flirts with a guy, takes a job as a hostess at a restaurant. Tiny Furniture is extraordinarily good-looking for a movie made for $50,000. Dunham has an eye for catchy camera angles, and it’s easy to see the virtues that stirred Apatow’s enthusiasm: The movie is essentially a series of comic sketches, and Dunham has the New Yorker cartoonist’s ability to limn and parody a specific type of urban neurotic with a single well-wrought line and image.
Tiny Furniture could have been made for me; I’m a Manhattanite, I went to private school, I moved back after college in the Midwest, and I know and am fascinated by the kinds of people Dunham portrays here. But I found Tiny Furniture wearying and could only make my way through half of it—you can watch it on demand on your cable box in the “IFC in Theaters” section—before turning it off with a sigh of relief. I suspect many people drawn by the movie’s ecstatic notices will have much the same experience.
What is it that so annoyed me about Tiny Furniture? It’s not that, as I approach the age of 50, I have forgotten what it was to be young. Quite the opposite; I rather enjoy any reminder of it I can get. No, what drove me crazy about Tiny Furniture is what also drives me crazy about a recent series of similarly cheap movies about aimless, inarticulate, anomic post-collegiates known as “mumblecore.”
This semi-movement, led by filmmakers Andrew Bujalski and Joe Swanberg and acted by their friends and relatives, has failed to make much of a cultural dent because, in the end, it’s not that much fun to watch people speak haltingly, wander aimlessly, pair off and break up, and do so with no evident pleasure or purpose. Tiny Furniture is better than the mumblecore movies (like Funny Ha Ha, Hannah Takes the Stairs, and other titles of which you have thankfully never heard), but it shares with them a maddening falsity. The works they most resemble are the brilliant 1970s short stories by Ann Beattie, which portrayed a wounded and shell-shocked generation of educated solipsists mired in a permanent emotional hangover from the sybaritic excesses of the 1960s and its various social revolutions.
But here’s the thing: Dunham and the mumblecore crew have been through no comparable wrenching social changes, so their anomie seems both unearned and affected. Indeed, these autobiographical studies of young people with no purpose have been made by young people who are anything but purposeless. They’re not Holden Caulfield; they’re Mark Zuckerberg. They are wildly ambitious, extraordinarily self-confident, and very determined. Tiny Furniture is Dunham’s second full-length feature film. The mumblecore guys have each made five films in seven years.
To make their pictures, they go out and raise money—tens if not hundreds of thousands of dollars. They make these movies, which is not an easy thing to do. And then they shop them in order to get distribution, a grueling and nerve-wracking process involving lawyers and rights clearances and bidding negotiations with often unscrupulous entertainment-world types. These are shark-infested waters, and Dunham—who is, by the way, nobody’s idea of a glamorous leading lady or winsome comedienne—entered them fearlessly, navigated them brilliantly, and has come out triumphant. Only a few years after reaching the legal drinking age.
Imagine, then, a very different kind of satirical movie—a movie that offers a portrait of a driven, determined, and confident young person and her circle of friends, most of whom are very much like her. Perhaps Dunham and the mumblecore folks don’t want to make such movies because they would cut too close. By acting as though they are losers, when they are the opposite, they are actually drawing a veil of secrecy across the very qualities that make them genuinely interesting.
John Podhoretz, editor of Commentary, is The Weekly Standard’s movie critic.