What happens when a rigorously non-mainstream filmmaker tries to reverse-engineer a mainstream romantic comedy? The result, in all its charming perversity, is “Results.”
Boston-raised Andrew Bujalski has been making low-budget shaggy-dog wonders for more than a decade: “Funny Ha Ha” (2002), “Mutual Appreciation” (2005), “Beeswax” (2009). His last film, “Computer Chess” (2013), was shot in black and white on ancient video equipment; it was great but it looked like outtakes from a security-camera feed circa 1972. On the face of it, “Results” couldn’t be more different: It’s in color, it has a plot, there are movie stars. And yet it stays true to Bujalski’s primary obsession: the human inability to connect while trying desperately, even ridiculously hard to do so.
The setting is Austin, Texas, but it could be anywhere: strip malls, tract houses, under-decorated apartments. Trevor (Guy Pearce) runs a fitness center with ambitions to expand; he’s not the brightest of bulbs, but he’s a good guy and he buys earnestly into his own self-help double-talk. His most successful trainer, a zero-body-fat bombshell named Kat (Cobie Smulders of TV’s “How I Met Your Mother”) is his emotional opposite: tightly wound and cynical, running angrily to beat the rest of the world to the finish line. We first see her interrupting a morning sprint to chase down a deadbeat client — a mom driving by in a mini-van.
Trevor and Kat had a thing, but it’s in the past, sitting there like an undigested burrito. The film’s catalyst is Danny, an out of shape New Jerseyite who has washed ashore in Texas with a lot of money and no idea what to do with it. He lives in an empty mansion and pays college students from CraigsList $200 to hook up his cable TV; he signs up for fitness training from Kat out of boredom and the stated need to “learn how to take a punch.” Danny is played by Kevin Corrigan, finally grabbing a lead role after decades of playing supporting mooks in Scorsese epics and lesser crime films. He is wonderful, an outer-borough sourball stranded in an unironic heartland.
The filmmaker isn’t much interested in consistency of character. Having established Kat as a Type-A fussbudget, he quickly has her getting high with Danny and indulging in some ill-advised horseplay. That’s as far as it goes, and when Danny presses the matter, Trevor rushes in as Kat’s protector. But we’re in Bujalski-land, where everyone is equal in their general bafflement. Trevor and Danny become friends and business partners, with Giovanni Ribisi kibitzing from the sidelines as Danny’s shifty racetrack tout of a lawyer.
This is a romantic comedy? In a loopy, roundabout fashion, yes. The story line gradually urges Trevor and Kat toward each other, with Danny acting as a sort of slob Cupid. Bujalski has fun with the elements of the genre: bright, flat colors; playful editing tricks; a genial soundtrack; an adorable dog. A sequence late in the film has Trevor and Kat driving out to the home of a Russian fitness guru and his wife — played by one-time John Hughes fixture Anthony Michael Hall and supermodel Brooklyn Decker — for a sales pitch dinner that goes strenuously wrong and then amusingly right. It’s just four people sitting around a table, but the scene’s full of sharp angles and unexpected laughs. The director can play the game when he wants.
But “Results” is as much about his dismantling of audience expectations, through characters who play against our sympathies and through a constant undertow of entropy and dejection. As strapping as he is, Trevor cuts a sad figure, never sure why the upbeat philosophy he sells his clients can’t translate to happiness for himself. Pearce usually gets cast as terse lone heroes, and you can feel his relief at playing someone with quirks and flaws. Trevor has the body of a he-man and the soul of a sweet-natured dork.
For her part, Smulders blazes through Kat’s contradictions to create a character who’s fun to watch if not particularly believable. But that’s partly what Bujalski, an outsider artist if ever there was one, enjoys about this most inside of genres: the chance to believe in things going right — in love somehow conquering all — when so much of the offscreen world refuses to play along. It’s a lovely dream, and what are movies if not dreams in real time?Ty Burr can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @tyburr.