I’ve come upon a startling revelation: a lot of people really hate director Jeff Baena’s movies. Perhaps best known as the long-time-boyfriend-turned-husband of Aubrey Plaza, the guy has turned out five indie-flavored comedy movies in the eight years since 2014. Plaza has starred in four of those five, and indeed, Baena has brought together a roster of actors in that generation of comedic actors and improvisers, including Adam Pally, Alison Brie, and more. Starting as a production assistant and a co-writer on David O. Russell’s I HEART HUCKABEES (2004), Baena’s movies, I would say, are defined mostly by a deadpan comic style. A lot of his movies have a lot of space in them, and it doesn’t always work, but his general approach has fostered a contingent criticizing them for being unfunny, even if that’s not necessarily represented by a Rotten Tomatoes-esque critical consensus. In any event, I disagree with the Baena haters, but before I even discovered what seems to be this semi-majority opinion, I took to reviewing his movies to write up these five features Baena has made so far.
#5 — LIFE AFTER BETH (2014)
I will admit, although I haven’t disliked any of Baena’s movies so far, that LIFE AFTER BETH is the hardest to get through. His first movie definitely has some “debut feature” energy: it has a clever premise that never exactly comes together in a really satisfying way. Dane DeHaan plays a boyfriend grief-stricken over the death of his girlfriend (Plaza), who returns as a zombie. So already there’s a struggle for me, because while he’s been in good movies, DeHaan rankles me for some reason. Then much of the movie’s comedy is predicated on keeping Beth (Plaza’s zombie girl) in the dark about her undead state, with lots of the same conversations and fast-paced, yell-y dialogue going for a lot of the movie’s sub-90 minute run time. The opening of LIFE AFTER BETH has some potential as well, but when it kicks into high-concept comedy gear, it loses most emotional resonance and even the compelling visual language. But I will acknowledge that the movie has a stacked cast, from John C. Reilly to Molly Shannon to Paul Reiser and more, and they all do admirably enough so as to keep the movie entertaining. Indeed, the interactions between DeHaan and Matthew Gray Gubler’s militant brother character provide the most out-and-out laughs. But LIFE AFTER BETH just rehashes itself far too often, and doesn’t actually capture most of the emotional resonance it’s going for, so that it’s a marginal experience, even among Baena’s filmography.
#4 — SPIN ME ROUND (2022)
SPIN ME ROUND is Baena’s latest movie at the time of this writing and another poorly received entry in his body of work. But I was moderately impressed with it, starring and co-written by Alison Brie, another performer who has appeared in four of five of the director’s movies. I feel that this is Baena’s most “conventional” movie, in terms of its plot, pacing, performances, and look. I guess that’s most of what makes up a movie. But SPIN ME ROUND almost feels like a studio comedy of a couple years ago, albeit a good one. Its mystery basis allows for a lot of holes for the sake of comedy and expedient progression (for example, I think Plaza’s character is done dirty in terms of screen time and ultimate role in the climax), but once again, Baena assembled a great ensemble that I just love to watch. The group of “Tuscan Grove” (essentially Olive Garden) managers that are flown out to Italy to participate in a lame training program work so well together. Brie, Shannon, Zach Woods, and a guy that can make me laugh with minimal effort, Tim Heidecker, are the standouts. The ultimate impact of SPIN ME ROUND is perhaps minimal, especially with its predictable resolution, but the bizarre context of its inciting incident meeting some genre conventions makes for a fun setting to watch these performers in.
#3 — THE LITTLE HOURS (2017)
Baena once again assembled some standbys with this anachronistic 14th-century nun tale. Brie, Reilly, Plaza, and Shannon are most notably joined by Kate Micucci, and they all improvise within a broad frame based in THE DECAMERON. This is probably Baena’s most deadpan movie in a filmography full of deadpan delivery and awkward pauses, but it works so well with the out-of-time setting. This seems to have the most overt commentary of any of the director’s movies as well, concerning religion and sexual power dynamics (the latter comes into play with SPIN ME ROUND too). THE LITTLE HOURS has some of the most spectacular yet understated images of all of Baena’s movies, although its successor may just take the cake in that department.
#2 — HORSE GIRL (2020)
Baena has been quite prolific since LIFE AFTER BETH, but HORSE GIRL came after the biggest gap between his movies…although it had only been three years since THE LITTLE HOURS. In a much different vein than SPIN ME ROUND, which plays for laughs, HORSE GIRL also relies on “cringey” moments that are made so by the situations and performances rather than some poor execution. Starring and co-written by Brie as well, the actress plays a troubled introverted woman who has a lot of trouble interacting with people in a lot of situations. I’m leaving things vague because part of the movie’s appeal is starting to piece together just what tone Baena and Co. are going for. It lands somewhere pretty uncomfortable and bizarre, represented by some outlandish dream and fantastical moments that are out-of-step with the character’s mundane life as a crafts store employee. In a way, this is Baena’s least accessible movie, but in going bizarre, he also ironically pulled out one of his most emotionally moving films with HORSE GIRL.
#1 — JOSHY (2016)
JOSHY is where I came in with Baena, and indeed, it was only his second movie. I was pulled in by its cast of comic improvisers, including Thomas Middleditch, Adam Pally, Nick Kroll, Brett Gelman, Jenny Slate, and more. Maybe it’s just where I was at at the time of its release, but the story of this morose guy grieving the suicide of his fiancée and going to what was supposed to be his bachelor party a few months later was compellingly bittersweet. The emotional framework allows for the cast to really shine with their improv skills, creating characters both ridiculous and likeable. In a way, JOSHY is Baena’s most “grounded” movie, not taking place in a medieval period or working with zombies or detailing absurd mystery plots or producing paranoid sci-fi visions. The larger-than-life behavior of some of the movie’s characters of course don’t make the movie some kind of gritty realism work, but it succeeds in carry its emotional thread throughout the comedy. JOSHY is touching and funny, a low-key movie with high, poignant relationship stakes, and easily Baena’s most consistent, amusing, and resonant movie to date.