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With: Mark Duplass, Kathryn Aselton, Rhett Wilkins
Written by: Mark Duplass, Jay Duplass
Directed by: Jay Duplass
MPAA Rating: R for language
Running Time: 85
Date: 01/01/2005

The Puffy Chair (2006)

3 Stars (out of 4)

Winners Never Sit

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

The American road movie has a long and grand history. Our inherent restlessness and curiosity combined with 3000 miles of open road make the concept irresistible. The one standard in all the road movies is this: whatever the destination or goal, it is always secondary to the lessons learned along the way.

A prime example is Rob Reiner's The Sure Thing (1985) in which John Cusack treks cross country for an evening of sex with a blond, bikini-clad goddess (Nicollette Sheridan), but unexpectedly falls in love with his more ordinary (but still cute) traveling companion, the neurotic brunette (Daphne Zuniga).

Others in the genre range from Frank Capra's It Happened One Night (1934), to Dennis Hopper's Easy Rider (1969), Barry Levinson's Rain Man (1988), Martin Brest's Midnight Run (1988), Alexander Payne's Sideways (2004) and Duncan Tucker's Transamerica (2005).

Which brings us to The Puffy Chair, a wonderful feature debut from brothers Jay Duplass, who directs, and Mark Duplass, who stars and produces. Both brothers wrote the screenplay.

In the Puffy Chair road trip, Josh (Mark Duplass) prepares to drive south along the East Coast, first to pick up a great purple armchair (purchased on the internet), then to deliver it to his father as a surprise birthday gift.

Originally, Josh intends to go alone, but after a fight with his girlfriend Emily (Kathryn Aselton), she is invited. Josh and Emily have been dating for some time, but Josh still enjoys joking around with her (he calls her "dude"), while she is clearly ready for a bigger commitment.

On their first stop, they visit Josh's brother Rhett (Rhett Wilkins), a kind of spiritually centered but unpredictably flighty soul or, more specifically, a sweet-tempered nutcase. We first see him crouching in the bushes videotaping a lizard. Before the evening is out, Rhett has invited himself along for the ride.

Rhett's presence gets in the way of -- and exacerbates -- Josh and Emily's relationship issues. The couple was planning on spending some alone time, but now they wind up fighting.

Trouble increases when they arrive to pick up the chair, and it in no way resembles the picture that appeared on the web. This requires an overnight stay in some out-of-the-way town. Rhett meets and marries(!) a local girl and all conflicts come to a head.

The Duplass brothers have created three characters of amazing emotional richness; each feels as if he or she existed before the movie started and will live on after it ends. The conversations play out as if real people with differing viewpoints were conversing rather than one voice telling the audience what to think.

Shot on digital video, Jay Duplass concentrates on close-ups that read the characters' faces, as well as a few extended takes that preserve the natural flow of conversation.

Of course, he's also smart enough to know when to pull back, and the closeness never verges on crowding. He understands that humor -- of which the movie has its share -- needs distance.

And for a batch of amateurs, these actors find raw emotional centers with nary a false note. (The brothers allowed their co-stars to improvise their dialogue.) The film even manages a thoughtful, surprisingly unconventional ending.

But The Puffy Chair could have been more. It's clearly smart enough that it could have surpassed movies like "Rain Man" and "Transamerica," both of which rely too heavily on gimmickry and fail to achieve such fully rounded human representations.

Oddly, the solution could be to put more emphasis on the gimmick; give us more puffy chair. If the road trip had been less casual and more crucial, or if more symbolic highlighting had been placed on the chair itself, it may have given the movie more thrust.

We know that the father once had a chair quite like this one, and that it's his birthday and that the gift will be a surprise, but nothing more is at stake.

Even with the richness of the characters and the film's snappy pace (85 minutes), the whole genre template still shows in the seams. In any given moment, the movie's honesty catches you up, but in the big picture, it becomes just another road movie.

Don't get me wrong: The Puffy Chair is still very much worth seeing. It's like the brightest student in the class that has shown signs of brilliance but has only turned in B+ work. We could judge them merely on the merit of that B+ grade, which is nothing to sneeze at, or we could urge them even higher.

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