(Originally published on the Examiner in October 2009, this review has been moved here in its entirety.)
Wannabe rock star Allan (Justin Rice) shows up in New York to pursue his career, experience city life, and hang out with his friends Lawrence (writer/director Andrew Bujalski) and Ellie (Rachel Clift) - Lawrence's girlfriend, whose feelings for Allan may give the movie its sly title. As Allan and Ellie skirt closer to the edge of a sexual and emotional engagement, they realize they're playing with fire - without care, their happy trio could quickly go up in smoke.
As with all of the talented Bujalski's films, a plot description does not fully convey the movie's appeal. Actually, Mutual Appreciation is one of the best films of the decade. The attraction lies not so much in the story, which gives the fleeting moments and prevailing mood a context and a destination (though as always, a climax is present without a full-on resolution), as in the texture of the film. The beautiful, grainy black-and-white 16mm film look suffuses the proceedings with a melancholy, romantic atmosphere. Bujalski elicits charismatically naturalistic performances from his entire cast, and the improvised feel of the exchanges (though they are, in fact, hardly improvised) deepens the relaxed sensation of being immersed in an authentic universe which the filmmaker, like a Deist God, set in motion and then left to spin of its own accord.
Mutual Appreciation's rock musician hero and hip Brooklyn setting (touristy exteriors are eschewed for just-as-evocative apartment rooms and occasional basement clubs) are double-edged swords. They create a buzz and excitement around the film which can draw viewers in (Bujalski's first film took place in a more grungy post-college setting; his third in a workaday, more practical thirtysomething milieu). However, these elements also allow some to smugly deride the film as trendy or "hipster" and thus dismiss it. In fact, Bujalski's prevailing mood is a warm engagement with life, limned with melancholy; he eschews arch, ironic distancing for exposure of the raw feelings which race beneath young people's social interactions. He even has the guts to show the discomforting parasitism which underlies the musician's free-wheeling life, as he stumblingly phones his dad for money and endures a lecture about finding a job. Bujalski's first films spawned a movement jokingly dubbed "mumblecore" (these films can be intriguing but remain mere snapshot details of Bujalski's larger, richer canvas). Most other filmmakers of this milieu would have you believe that their characters survive on unconvincing half-baked "cool" jobs or some nebulous notion of financial independence. (This honesty manifests itself in different ways in different Bujalski films: in Funny Ha Ha, the character struggles through dreadful-looking temp jobs while Beeswax gives its characters relatively un-hip professions like lawyer and store manager). Anyway, after Bujalski kicked off an under-the-radar movement (of which most filmgoers remain blissfully unaware), he lay low for a while, appearing in a few of his peers' films but apparently waiting until the buzz blew over and he could go back to making his own unique, inimitable movies without being pigeonholed.