'Blue Jay' finds Sarah Paulson and Mark Duplass cutting loose
The two play high school exes reuniting, but it's funny on top of being sad.
Director: Alexandre Lehmann
Stars: Sarah Paulson, Mark Duplass
3 (out of 5) Globes
There’s ’90s nostalgia, and then there’s throwing in a reference to the Emilio Estevez-Charlie Sheen vehicle “Men at Work.” At least as good as anything by Noah Baumbach, the king of leftfield movie shout-outs, this brief aside is a sign that the indie “Blue Jay” is really trying — that it's specific and eccentric and not your standard “Before Sunset” knock-off about exes reuniting. (Also namechecked: Toad the Wet Sprocket.)
It’s a simple plot — simple enough for the actors to make it their own. Sarah Paulson and Mark Duplass play Amanda and Jim, high school lovers who havent seen each other since. And yet as the two run into each other in supermarket then spend a day and night bopping around their backwater California hometown — whose only other citizens seem to be a waitress and Clu Gulager (as a convenience store clerk) — they favor banter over bathos. This may be an indie shot in "serious" B&W with the occasional montage set to sad music. But even when they address the sizable elephant in the room, they tend to do so by joking, laughing over what should be painful — and might still be, honestly — but which is also long in the past. They like to think they’ve moved on, even if they haven’t.
Duplass also wrote “Blue Jay,” or “wrote” it: His screenplay was no more than a rough draft. For this is also an indie, like certain other Duplass creations and Lynn Shelton films starring Duplass, where the actors improvise all of their lines. Improv is always a dodgy proposition — it can be lazy even when well-intentioned — but Paulson and Duplass have such strong, giggly chemistry that they not only give off good vibes, but also inspire in each other some inspired off-the-cuff splutterings. Paulson rarely gets to cut loose — she just won an Emmy for playing Marcia Clark, ferchrissakes — so she’s a revelation as someone who spends the majority of the movie trying to one-up Mark Duplass and leading an uncomfortably close dance to Annie Lennox.
Of course, it wouldn’t be an indie dramedy if the good times didn’t last. “Blue Jay” falls unusually far, although only in the last 10 minutes (of 80). Most of the time it walks a fine line between comedy and comedy that’s masking deep sadness. What Amanda and Jim are doing is more interesting (and respectable) than “laughing so as not to cry,” and Duplass even throws in a stretch where “Blue Jay” very nearly (but not quite) becomes a grungy Amerindie version of “Certified Copy”: they start pretending to be a longtime married couple, well aware that she has an actual husband back home. That it will wind up in a more conventional (though still rough and raw) place doesn’t negate that it captured something like lightning in a bottle: the sight of two people, and two actors, enjoying each other’s company. Ignore the particulars, and it’s practically a documentary.