A friend of mine — whose opinion is shared by hosts of viewers — has griped about Lena Dunham and the fame of Girls and its cast members: "Everybody talks like they're the voice of our 'lost generation,'" she said. "But their parents are all famous people." In other words, the complaint goes, the extent of the Girls cast's success comes from the connections available to them.
Yes — Dunham comes from artistic stock; her mother is Laurie Simmons, the famed photographer, and her father is a painter whose work is featured in MoMA's permanent collection. But credit must be given where it is due: Lena Dunham is, if anything, supremely motivated and particularly resourceful. She came out with a web series, Downtown Delusional Divas, and her first feature-length film, Creative Nonfiction, while studying at Oberlin. Not long after graduation, she released her second feature, Tiny Furniture. Now, at 26, she's the writer and star of the HBO series Girls. Family influence aside, that's a lot better than the post-graduate months I spent looking at job postings while eating Hot Pockets for breakfast.
And just as you'd expect from a savvy writer of her generation, she's been able to successfully mine and exploit her personal experience for good material. Her work thus far has channeled a tone that mocks the privilege and indulgence of her lot: Her characters whine and accept their parents' money while making clear that they (the grown-up girls) pay a whole half of their BlackBerry bills on their own; they see themselves as struggling artists, but come home to TriBeCa lofts. And you, the viewer, can laugh, precisely because they're pathetic. The Paradox of Lena Dunham is that it's hard to hate her for being spoiled when she knows it as well as you do.
Dunham has found a successful shtick — creating big, hot messes who are easy to sympathize with — and with a new multi-million dollar book deal, she's building it into a comedy empire. But she, unlike her characters, isn't stuck in arrested development; though Dunham's made a career off of being funny and pathetic, her latest piece of writing, the film Nobody Walks, shows that she's heading in a new and somewhat surprising direction. This one isn't that funny, and that's intentional. It's also not that engaging, however, which is a bigger problem.
Winner of a Special Jury Prize at Sundance, Nobody Walks is co-written by Dunham and Ry Russo-Young, who also directs. It's a departure from the self-conscious, mocking tone of Girls; Nobody is Dunham's entry into non-comedic filmmaking (and filmmaking in which she doesn't also star), about serious people in serious situations. In fact, in the end, the movie takes itself a little too seriously.
The film follows 23-year-old Martine (Olivia Thirlby), an attractive visual artist whose latest work brings her to crash with friends of friends, Peter (John Krasinski) and Julie (a fantastic Rosemarie Dewitt), in their Los Angeles pool house. Peter's a sound designer who's offered to help Martine on the audio elements of her new art film. It's about insects, and she and Peter immediately hit it off while brainstorming and recording audio for her work.
Of course, said hitting it off is complicated by Peter's marriage to Julie, a therapist with her own troubles, mainly a hot-and-hotter patient who uses his sessions to explore his feelings for her. They have two kids: Julie's daughter from a previous marriage, who can't wait to be something other than 16, and their son, who at about seven years old, makes the very youthful Peter seem an improbably young father.
The formula's clear, and the pending consequences are, too: young woman moves into married couple's home, tensions creep their way into the household. For Julie, Peter's obvious attraction to their houseguest isn't the problem as much as how he chooses to take care of it: "Just don't embarrass me," she says.
Nobody Walks identifies Martine as the source of all the heat rising in the air, but never successfully pinpoints her intentions. Martine is beautiful, lost and carefree with her magnetic energy — an energy that pulls people in, at the risk of leaving certain things (reason among them) behind. Like many of Dunham's characters, Martine is a variant of the confused and broken millennial. But all her charm and magnetism aren't enough to cover up the degree to which she is inconsiderate and careless; it makes you dislike her, and that hurts the film.
Dunham's effort here is worth noticing for those who are following her development as a writer, and she, along with Russo-Young, possess a skill for nuance and for presenting contemplative, slow seductions on screens big and small. But Dunham's dramatic sensibilities aren't as honed as her comedic ones, and some of the best qualities of her other work turns up missing. She's made her name writing characters like Hannah Horvath — and her friend Jessa, a closer cousin to Martine — who embody the rising generation of out-of-touch twentysomethings. What's made them relatable is a ready acknowledgement of their failings and their standing invitation to mock — and empathize with — their misfortunes and self-interest. While Martine is sexy, charming, magnetic — an aspirational character in some ways — she takes herself too seriously, and represents a lot of the worst of her generation: She's selfish, inconsiderate and lacks empathy. It's not that the broken millennial is only sympathetic when self-deprecation is involved, but unlike Hannah, we know Martine's not going to think or write about the family drama later; unaffected, she'll continue on, leaving behind a mass of confusion and hurt feelings as she heads for the door.
The problem with the characters in Nobody Walks is that — except for Rosemarie Dewitt's Julie — they inspire dislike, or at best indifference. Dunham's usual strength is in making her audience feel both disdain and sympathy for her characters; this time, there's plenty of the former but not enough of the latter. In removing her brand of self-mocking humor from the film, Dunham's also removed a layer of self-awareness from her titular character. A serious drama — following a character who helps wreak chaos, and without remorse — is intentionally a lot less funny than Dunham's previous material; it's also, unintentionally, a lot less interesting to watch.