Andrew Bujalski earns his epithetical relationship with John Cassavetes like Michael Haneke earns his Alfred Hitchcock one: not through a parallel filmic or narrative identity but from a similar fundamental approach to the material. Haneke in his revisions of filmic suspense, and Bujalski by his sincere and unguarded portrayal of relationships between people.
Bujalski's method is to measure out relationships without dramatic manipulation or narrative interference, and his strength is that the characters seem to grow without heading anywhere foreseeable. Events in his movies accumulate within the narrative because we have to learn more about the character, and because the characters keep living, while in a less honest narrative structure the events seem to happen within a plotted piece of fiction that has an ultimate goal, message, resolution, etc.
Funny Ha Ha and Mutual Appreciation both begin and end in medias res. Relationship and personal uncertainty and ambiguity similarly operate as motifs through both movies, but Bujalski doesn't allow these elements to solidify or delineate the massive canvas his films suggest. This makes him different from other independent filmmakers whose films are often plotless but obviously dealing with and articulating an emotional agenda. He's as interested in plots as Jarmusch is. Bujalski, though, lacks the boisterous and idiosyncratic characters Jarmusch has; he also lacks the emotional depth and internal mining of Cassavetes; the investigative magnification of Leigh; the moral core of Kieslowski; the social implications of Ke Jia or Yang; the dynamic lifestyle of a Schlesinger or Dumont character; the artistic probing of Tarr or the Dardennes; and even the story arch of Boden and Fleck.
This guy's got no style. Absolutely none. And it's so refreshing to witness. What happens sometimes is boredom, impatience, and distrust. It can feel arbitrary at times. What value does one scene have over another? Why does a character even make a decision? What's the point? This is why Bujalski needs to have and does have a conflict of interests/desires, both internal/external, and that's not him making concessions. It's him being a gifted storyteller, which he is, even if you can't see it until the end. His talent and vision is in what he refrains from, and that's why he also has a reputation of being without pretension.
In my mind the lack of structural foundation enhances his design. It allows him to do anything with his characters. Since there's no message or plot to exit or betray, there's no sense of contradiction or incongruity. The characters simply keep living. His approach also feels cinematically honest. Really fucking honest; by contrast many of my favorite films seem too concerned with film theory and too little with the human experience. There's always great discussion about how best to stimulate the emotional performance of a narrative - what shot evokes what feeling, what setting intensifies what tone, what color elevates what scene, etc, and Bujalski seems to me to be the first to effectively dismiss much of this tautological stylizing. His films could exist without any theory, could exist entirely alone. For that matter so could his characters, who don't rely on external momentum. They create their own.