Defining the hipster comedy - a look at Away We Go and Up in the Air

Lately I've been trying to steer clear from dramedies that look like Away We Go and Up in the Air; middle of the road films packaged neatly for the thinking moviegoer who doesn't like to be challenged.
What exactly is this breed of film? After finishing Away We Go a fellow viewer stated they didn't like the film, and that they don't really enjoy "hipster comedies" like it. The term hipster comedy has been rattling around my brain since. How does one define what makes a hipster comedy when there are already so many conflicting views on what makes something "hipster" and what people find funny?

Googleing hipster comedy is no help, you get people who argue that "hipster comedy" is that intentionally dumbed-down style of comedy that's taken the internet by storm and is slowly carving out a niche with television audiences and film-goers alike. Troupes such as The Lonely Island, Tim and Eric, Flight of the Conchords, Demetri Martin, and Zach Galfinakis fall into this camp.

While still, others say hipster comedies were born out of Woody Allen's pictures and continue today in the form of movies such as Sideways, Garden State, Little Miss Sunshine, any Wes Anderson movie, anything with Michael Cera in it.

For the sake of argument i'll go with the latter definition of the term; these are simple films that are subtly funny and have a shit load of Elliot Smith or Velvet Underground on the soundtrack.
Films such as these can feel bland, predictable, redundant, pretentious, alienating, offensive etc. They can also be great flicks, either way they're the easiest kind of movie to recommend to that customer who wants that vanzilla flavoured film ("something funny, not stupid funny. Nothing heavy, but not too light and it has to be in English... I don't feel like reading tonight").

Away We Go had much hyperbole surrounding it due to the writing duties. Dave Eggers and his wife Vandela Vida are both considered "hipster writers" (don't ask) and as this is their first stab at script writing many were eager to see if their styles of writing would translate on film. Directorial duties went to Sam Mendes who is no stranger to the comedy de la hipster (American Beauty), and with John Krasinski (of the American Office) and Maya Rudolph (a popular SNL alumni) top billed this should have been a flannel wearing, beard donning, cream in your tight jeans affair.
The film follows a young 30 something couple (Burt and Verona) who are expecting a baby. The couple travel to various locales around North America visiting old friends in search for that perfect family home. Every stop they make sees the couple encountering more and more despicable characters; like Burt's self centered parents, Verona's insane ex-coworker, and their hippie college friend. These characters that they encounter are so exaggerated and absurd in an otherwise subtle film that watching the couple become annoyed doesn't give us the effect that that they are in fact saner or "above it" as the film wants you to. The exaggerated characters give rise to a few chuckles but ultimately end up feeling forced and too loud for a film that benefits from subtlety.
When the film is what it is suppose to be (a depiction of the psychological impact having a baby has on people) it soars.
In the last act the couple meet two people who are not exaggerated and have tragic tales of human life to convey and this is where the film becomes the most intriguing. It's just too bad it's already over by this point.
For what it is worth, Away We Go managed to score more laughs out of me then i had expected but then again i didn't expect much. Just a shame Maya Rudolph felt like a lost comedic opportunity.

However, my expectations were high for Jason Reitman's Up in the Air. Reitman has found commercial success with previous efforts such as the fantastic Thank Your For Smoking and Juno.
Earlier this year while Up in the Air was on the festival circuit it was being heralded as the best film of 2009 and won almost every top critic or festival award it was nominated for. This led me to believe that Up in the Air, which at first glance seemed like your run of the mill dramedy, was something truly special buried underneath a seemingly deceitful facade of mediocrity.
Unfortunately Up in the Air is well written, perfectly cast , and superbly photographed the only thing it is not is different.
There is nothing about Up in the Air that feels refreshing, for the most part the film feels recycled much like the oxygen in an airplane cabin.
Not to say Up in the Air is not a "great" film because it is, it just did not stand up next to my greater expectations.
The film follows Ryan Bingham (played by the always incorrigible George Clooney) who loves his job, it's a field of work that sees Ryan traveling around the country (U.S.A.) firing employees for employers who can not stomach it themselves. On the side Ryan also gives motivational speeches that are mostly about relying only on yourself and considering most other human beings dead weight.
When his way of life is threatened by new blood in his company suggesting firing people from laptops via webcams, which would ultimately mean Ryan would be grounded in one location, he is faced with the reality of his life; he has no friends, is losing touch with his family, and has an ugly apartment. Ryan realizes he must change his life to find a happiness he can feel grounded in.
The film from there does what it does quite well, only it feels very predictable minus the abrupt ending that is starting to feel like a staple now in dramatic comedies.
So similar in tone did the conclusion of Up in the Air felt to Sideways that i walked out making a comment about how the film was basically "Sideways on a Plane".

I assume the term "Hipster Comedy" can basically be used for any comedy that is not your mainstream affair. Although even that statement rings false as at one time everything coming from the Apatow camp was considered by some as "Hipster Comedy".
Both of these films focus on people in the middle of crisis, existentially and emotionally. People on the brink of something that will change their lives forever and how one deals with that. It is possible that a film can be both comedic and dramatic and not be considered "hipster" and films such as those focus on people coming to terms with things greater than themselves.
For the films i have mentioned (Wes Anderson films, Woody Allen films, Sideways, Garden State, Away We Go, Up in the Air) the characters in these films never leave the arena of self. Their introspective journeys never lead them to conclusions that would involve any one else but themselves, which may be why the abrupt ending is becoming the top choice for these type of films. The characters in these films are never fixed or redeemed.

Take Allen's Manhattan, the end scene is Allen running across Manhattan begging the young girl he had dumped earlier in the movie for a second chance. This does not come across as romantic but rather it feels desperate and before we can see what happens with the two the film ends. We know that over the course of the film Allen's character has learned absolutely nothing.
In Sideways Paul Gimatti drinks a bottle of wine by himself, eats a burger, and goes to see a woman that liked him but he pushed away. This should also feel like a romantic ending, yet the protagonist only does this because he feels there is nowhere else to go after he sees his ex-wife happy with another man. The gesture feels desperate and maybe that's what hipster comedies are. Desperate gestures, people grasping at straws, character studies on people who never realize a greater sense of self and the people around them.

That or it is all the Elliot Smith/sappy folk/Starbucks drivel that is heavily featured on the films soundtracks.



the coelacanth said...


think you hit the nail on the head with that last paragraph.

La Sporgenza said...

Wow..... I'm speachless. Smart, thoughtful and well-articulated review Kris. Well-done.

Britarded said...

Yeah, what's with this blog getting clogged up with actual reviews again? Dope!

the coelacanth said...

i'm also "speachless".

La Sporgenza said...

'round here we spell it with an "a" instead of the traditional second "e"

.... just like they do in the Wisconsin "Scandanavian" I suppose.

the coelacanth said...

hahaha owned....and *fixed*. thanks.