In Andrew Bujalski's directorial debut "Funny Ha Ha" — the film often cited as the first "mumblecore" movie — its aimless protagonist Marnie, recently graduated from college, writes a to-do list charming in its modest ambition: "Make friends with Jackie." ''Learn to play chess?" ''Fitness initiative!"
Bujalski's last film crossed one of those off the list (the '80s-set black-and-white mockumentary "Computer Chess"), and now he has taken his characters to the gym. The fitness world, where Bujalski's latest, "Results," is set, might seem like the most unlikely place for the Austin-based indie director to turn; his scruffy, nerdy characters would probably only blink stoically if presented with a treadmill. But, as with Marnie's list, Bujalski has always been both stirred and amused by the impulse for personal growth.
"Results," itself, is a bulking up for Bujalski. Though still a low budget independent film, it cost more than his other four films combined and stars big name actors, including Guy Pearce and Colbie Smulders.
This is a radical shift for Bujalski, who's synonymous with Cassevetes-like lo-fi productions made with non-professional actors. The (seeming) lack of polish in his films isn't merely a stylistic preference but an aesthetic principle: He favors natural, awkward behavior — familiar and mundane — over more mannered, movie-like performance.
"Results" embodies both approaches in two totally opposite characters. Guy Pearce is Trevor, the fit, uber-positive owner of the Power 4 Life gym, where in stumbles Danny (Kevin Corrigan), a slovenly, divorced New Yorker who has inherited a huge sum of money and is now lazily living in an unfurnished Texas McMansion. "I want to be able to take a punch," he mumbles to Trevor.
Trevor assigns him his top trainer, Kat (Smulders), an obsessive believer in fitness who shames anyone who drops out of a routine and (literally) chases down a suburban mom behind on her payments, cursing her as a "deadbeat." Despite their differences, she and Danny hit it off, and a kind of romantic triangle develops, along with Trevor, who has a vague history with Kat.
It's a rom-com setup but one that disintegrates. The movie, which Bujalksi also wrote, instead follows more unpredictable story lines as Trevor, Danny and Kat each struggle in their own way to find fulfillment. Danny, unkempt and slovenly but honest and easygoing, upends the prescribed wellness programs of Power 4 Life. "We may disagree on the definition of health," he tells Kat, lighting a joint.
They make an appealing triad. When younger, Pearce was a bodybuilder in his native Australia, and the character — composed, genial — suits him. Corrigan has long been one of the best character actors around: a laconic, deadpan presence who brings a sweet melancholy to even the smallest of parts. Nothing proves Bujalski's smarts as much as casting him in a leading role.
But it's Smulders who takes hold of the film. Her angry intensity animates the story, prodding it along. Smulders has excelled as a member of ensembles ("How I Met Your Mother," ''The Avengers"), but "Results" suggests she can lead, too.
Bujalski balances each character, shifting between perspectives in a way that doesn't always feel natural (some background is revealed artificially late in the movie). But the pleasure of "Results" is that it does something few movies do by sensitively burrowing into the foolhardy but admirable hopes and aspirations of regular people trying to improve themselves, whether it means a "fitness initiative" or something else. Change may be impossible, but progress isn't.
"Results," a Magnolia Pictures release, is rated R by the Motion Picture Association of America for "for language, some sexual content and drug use." Running time: 105 minutes. Three stars out of four.
Follow AP Film Writer Jake Coyle on Twitter at: http://twitter.com/jakecoyleAP