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Hannah Takes The Stairs (2007)

DVD Cover (IFC Films)
Director:
Joe Swanberg Joe Swanberg
Starring:
Greta Gerwig Greta Gerwig
Kent Osborne Kent Osborne
Andrew Bujalski Andrew Bujalski
Ry Russo-Young Ry Russo-Young
Mark Duplass Mark Duplass

5.6 / 10 - Overall Rating

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Genres: Comedy Drama, Romantic Comedy, Urban Drama
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Review by bluemeanie
Added: October 02, 2007
There seems to be this trend in the world of independent cinema that is leaning towards more naturalistic acting and dramatic improvisation. I remember seeing a film a couple years ago called "The Puffy Chair", which also screened at the Sidewalk Moving Picture Festival. It was about a road trip and the acting seemed largely improvisational. What directors will do is take a group of actors, usually their friends and fellow filmmaking associates, and start improvising a general idea, and then craft a pseudo-script based on the improvisation that worked best. This technique has advantages and disadvantages, as do most, and "Hannah Takes the Stairs" is no exception. What writer and director Joe Swanberg did with this film was assemble a group of actors, rent out an apartment in Chicago during a very unusual heat wave and film them in various scenes, mostly done in an improvisational manner, and craft a film out of it. The actors and the two filmmakers all lived under the same roof during the filming process, which adds some nice emotional touches to the picture, but when you do so much improv with a film, you kind of lose track of where you're starting and where you're going. And if you don't know where you're going, you'll never get there.

In a strong performances, Greta Gerwig (who co-wrote the screenplay) stars as Hannah, a young woman who just can't seem to make up her mind about the kind of man she wants. She starts out with Mike (Mark Duplass), a very loving and very funny guy who seems to be ideal for her. They seem to have fun together and they seem to have a lot in common. Unfortunately, Hannah gets bored with Mike and decides they need to break up, not very long after Mike confesses that he is terrible with break-ups and can't handle them. Hannah day job is as a writer for a television pilot, where she works along side Paul (Andrew Bujalski) and Matt (Kent Osborne). After she breaks it off with Mike, she starts seeing Paul, her co-worker. Paul is not very attractive, but has a nice sense of humor and you get the feeling Hannah might be the first girlfriend he's ever had. At first, it seems as if they are having a great time together, but Hannah eventually tires of his being so needy and all over her, but then complains that he's never there. She moves on to Matt, her other co-worker, who plays the trumpet, just like she does, which is an attraction. We don't get to see how their relationship ends, because the film cuts off, but we have a pretty good idea by then.

The problems with "Hannah Takes the Stairs" are too great to ignore. First off, the character of Hannah needs to be addressed. She is very much painted as the antagonist here. She is someone who obviously has some emotional problems. Each of the men she dates in the film are men with somewhat troubled lives. Mike makes it known that he doesn't handle break-ups well; Paul is probably experiencing being in love for the first time and already has self-esteem problems; and Matt admits to being on anti-depressants, so there's no telling her her leaving will affect him. This film is about a troubled girl who basically ruins the lives of three guys, and there is not attention paid to the emotional turmoil that her selfish and juvenile actions are causing in their lives. I did not like the character of Hannah in the film, even though Greta Gerwig played her quite well. I had a problem with how nonchalantly she treated these guys so poorly towards the end. It was basically as if Hannah was absolutely immature and ended up always finding men who were far more mature and sophisticated than she. I wanted to see these guys tell her off, akin to Jon Lovitz giving Jane Adams the 'what for' in "Happiness". She deserves it. Her character should grow up.

Another problem with the film is the ending, or lack thereof. We invest all of this time and energy in these characters and then the film just cuts off in mid-bath tub trumpet duet. We have no idea if Hannah is ever going to change, though it seems doubtful that she will. The film almost felt to me like "In the Company of Men" from the female perspective, though not quite as brutal and as harsh. I wanted some sort of resolution with this film because I disliked the character of Hannah so much. I thought she had the best guy in the beginning, in Mike. He was, easily, the most grounded and enjoyable character in the film, and there is an especially nice moment when he calls Hannah's cell phone as he is standing a few feet away and watches as she intentionally ignores it and goes back to listening to her co-workers ramble on. There is also another nice extended sequence where Greta Gerwig shows an apt emotional range, though I disliked her character so much at that time, that the scene lost a little intensity for me. Director Joe Swanberg knows how to craft a film and he knows how to amp up the emotional discovery in a film, but he should have paid more attention to make the character something more than an atypical villain.

Do I recommend "Hannah Takes the Stairs"? If you love quirky independent cinema in the same ball park as "The Puffy Chair" or "Melvin Goes to Dinner" - sure, I recommend it. You'll have a few laughs, get to watch some good performances and likely not feel too cheated. You might even enjoy the ending, or lack thereof. I just wish "Hannah Takes the Stairs" could have worried a little less with finding those 'bullseye' acting moments and concentrated a little more on finding those 'bullseye' story moments. But, that's what happens when you rely so heavily on improv. In many ways, improv is just a form of cinematic laziness. It puts more responsibility on the actors and takes a lot away from the writers and directors. When it works, it works well. "Great World of Sound" is an example of when it can work. But, when it doesn't work, the film gets boring and tired. I don't think "Hannah Takes the Stairs" got bored or tired, but it didn't keep the attention that "The Puffy Chair" did a few years back, and it didn't have a satisfying conclusion. I loosely recommend the film, with the hopes that, next time, Joe Swanberg uses his writing talent more.

6/10.
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