“Quirky” can be defined as “full of quirks.” A “quirk” is “a strange attitude or habit” (synonyms: oddity, queerness, crotchet).
In the late 1980s to early 1990s, about the time of the rise of the Sundance Festival, “serious” (as opposed to exploitation-style) independent films exploded in the United States. “Quirky” comedies quickly became a staple of independent movies and low budget movie festivals. These films had light tones but serious, life-affirming themes, were witty and gently wry (but never ruined the mood by going so far as to be biting), and were filled to the brim with eccentric characters. The fast-developing sub-genre became a darling of film critics.
One of the first quirky comedies was the early Coen brothers effort, Raising Arizona (1987). Holly Hunter played an infertile cop with a male name (“Ed”) who falls in love with peaceful burglar Nicolas Cage, who also has an odd name (“Hi”) and occasionally speaks in Shakespearean dialogue. These characters were highly eccentric but essentially harmless, and although the movie was actually a little bit weird (with Tex Cobb as a mystical biker/bounty hunter with supernatural abilities that surpassed the merely quirky), once the Coen’s more bizarre proclivities were snipped away, Raising Arizona served as a template for quirky movies to follow. (That quirky and weird can still coexist in the same movie was proven by Chan-wook Park’s I’m a Cyborg, but That’s OK , though notably it took an outsider to the American independent film tradition to pull it off.)
The first movie I think of when I think of the modern quirky formula is Baghdad Cafe (1987). It’s an exemplary cast of quirks: a stranded German housfrau who does magic tricks, a sassy and irritable black woman, an Indian short-order cook, a tattoist, Jack Palance as a retired Hollywood set painter. It’s set in the desert, the quintessentially quirky locale. It’s light (real danger never raises its head) and life-affirming (in the end the characters learn and grow from each others’ diametrically opposed quirks).
Other movies that clearly fall into the quirky genre are Roadside Prophets (1992), Benny & Joon (1993), The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert (1994), Clerks (1994) (a bit more profane and piquant than typical quirk), Napoleon Dynamite (2004), the recently reviewed Wristcutters: A Love Story (2006), and of course, anything by the reigning King of Quirk, Wes Anderson (Rushmore , The Royal Tennenbaums , The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou ). You can probably come up with other examples on your own (study the Sundance channel lineup for ideas).
I enjoy a good quirky comedy–although in the hands of an inexperienced or derivative director “quirky” can quickly turn into “annoying”–but I always distinguish the genre from the weird. I recently ran across an interesting 2007 Atlantic Montly article (“Quirked Around”) by Michael Hirschorn on the quirk aesthetic that perfectly explains why:
Quirk is odd, but not too odd. That would take us all the way to weird, and there someone might get hurt.
After reading the entire article, I think Hirschorn is ultimately too hard on quirk. I also don’t think it’s nearly as omnipresent a cultural paradigm as he does, at least if you actively seek out non-quirk circles outside of NPR or the self-consciously “indie” scene. There is a legitimate criticism to be made of the quirky aesthetic; it’s largely old-fashioned sentimentality inked up to appear hip. It’s also, as Hirschorn points out, too easy for the writer to achieve–simply give your characters a smattering of random eccentricities, and suddenly you appear to be a keen observer of the human condition–and therefore encourages creative laziness. And it shirks the deeper, scarier aspects of existence (a task gladly undertaken by the weird, thank goodness).
But, as I said, I enjoy a good quirky comedy–with the emphasis on comedy. Funny covers up a multitude of sins. One of Hirschorn’s prime exemplars/targets is the canceled TV comedy “Arrested Development,” which I found to be quite entertaining, light, and never full of itself. As a recognizable style of relatively sophisticated humor, I think the “quirky” comedy can serve roughly the same function in today’s society as the “screwball” comedy did in the 1930s and 1940s.
They aren’t weird, though.