Happy Here and Now
2002Director: Michael Almereyda
Cast: Shalom Harlow, Clarence Williams III, Karl Geary, David Arquette
uick show of hands: How many of you reading this review caught Michael Almereyda’s Happy Here and Now during its theatrical run last year? Okay, both of you guys can put your hands back down now. Of course, unless you were lucky enough to catch a festival screening, or you live in New York or Los Angeles and weren’t too busy with shopping and pre-holiday whatnot to make it down to the art-house theatre for the film’s brief mid-December stint, you have a pretty valid excuse.
Thankfully, this woefully under-seen gem—shelved for nearly four years, despite generally enthusiastic festival response—is now available on DVD. This is good news not just because Happy Here and Now is a remarkable movie and it deserves to be seen by more than a dozen people, but because (more than any other Almereyda feature I’ve seen, including his uncommonly inspired Hamlet modernization) this is a word-of-mouth cult-hit in the making.
The best reason I can think of as to why the film collected dust for so long is simply that it’s the sort of singular work that’s tough to make heads or tails of—i.e., a difficult sell. Mulholland Drive, with Cajun voodoo standing in for Lynch’s candy-coated dream factory, might’ve been a reasonable place to start. I can empathize, though. The film’s all-over-the-place-ness doesn’t lend itself well to your standard intro-plot-synopsis-finer-points-overall-qualitative-evaluation movie review format either, and in any event, its myriad virtues would be hard to flatter in this fashion. It’s, above all, a movie that’s more rewarding to discuss than pitch.
So, why’d it finally see the light of day? Serendipity. In the wake of Hurricane Katrina, the New Orleans-set film finally had its “in.” Shot years before the disaster, Happy Here and Now has, at once, nothing and everything to do with Katrina. The mystery yarn narrative—involving a missing young woman (Shalom Harlow), her sister (Liane Balaban, in a role probably written with Winona Ryder in mind) who’s ventured south to find her, an old-school P.I. investigating the case (Clarence Williams III), a small-time-pornographer-cum-would-be-philosopher (David Arquette—yes, David “Dial Straight Down the Middle” Arquette), his fireman brother (Karl Geary), the cyclopic widow (Gloria Reuben) of his former colleague, R&B; legend Ernie K. Doe (playing himself), the weird girl from The Breakfast Club, and…lots of other stuff that doesn’t seem to fit together in any easily discernible fashion—doesn’t correlate much with last year’s tragedy or its harrowing aftermath. (Ironically, it’s set in the not-distant future.) Nevertheless, Almereyda’s film feels haunted by the looming specter of things to come for this city. This is, after all, a region all-too-familiar with the potential devastation of such natural disasters. Even the movie’s title seems to suggest a calm before the storm.
Perhaps the best description may be film noir as tone poetry, or as LA Weekly’s Scott Foundas acutely proposes, pro-forma genre fare as avant-garde art. In the span of just under an hour and a half, there’s so many fascinating ideas tossed around—about identity, technology (following Olivier Assayas’s demonlover, this is only the second truly interesting filmic look at the parallel universe known as the Internet), filmmaking, the South—and some of the most indelible images projected onto a movie screen in the past year. A shot of a fire truck racing, early in the morning, through the back-streets of the Crescent City has proven impossible to shake. The penultimate black-and-white sequence plays like Guy Maddin minus the quotation marks until you consciously stop to wonder what exactly it is that Almereyda’s attempting to get at here.
Naturally, when you throw this much at the wall, only some of it’s going to stick. Happy Here and Now has loose-ends for miles, though maybe that’s part of the point, too. Maybe “making sense” is for luddites. Maybe Michael Almereyda can actually see into the future.