2005Director: Don Roos
Cast: Lisa Kudrow, Steve Coogan, Jesse Bradford, Bobby Cannavale, Maggie Gyllenhaal
’m not a big fan of romantic comedies, on the whole. Most of them read like recipes for disaster to me. Take two actors I’m not particularly crazy about who have absolutely no natural chemistry together. Add annoying, unattractive personality quirks. Sprinkle liberally with creepily dysfunctional attitudes toward the opposite sex and commitment and try to pass them off as normal. Spice with weird relationship propaganda. Add excessive amounts of cheese. Pour into bizarre, unlikely situations no one can possibly relate to. Cover with enough saccharine to assure instant brain death. Half bake. Suggested side dishes include public discussion of female lead’s sudden, scary weight loss and/or off-screen, tabloid relationship between stars possibly resulting in the dissolution of one or more previous marriages. Can be quickly reheated and served over and over again. Happy Endings, however, is different. A complicated ensemble piece, Happy Endings explores the choices people make and how they can sometimes turn our ideas about traditional relationships upside-down.
"Oh, Christ, it's Roseanne. How did she ever find me?"
The film begins by introducing up to 17-year-old Mamie and her newly acquired 16-year-old stepbrother Charley. Merely uttering the phrase “You know, we’re not really related” as an enticement, Mamie is suddenly deflowering Charley. The union results almost as suddenly in an unintended pregnancy and Mamie is whisked off to Phoenix for an abortion by her distraught mother, and that’s the end of that. Flash forward 20 or so years. Charlie (Steve Coogan) is now a gay restaurant owner with his partner Gil (David Sutcliffe). Charlie and Gil are friends with lesbian couple Pam and Diane (Laura Dern and Sarah Clarke) who have a child. Though once upon a time Gil donated sperm to Pam & Diane, the transaction apparently didn’t work out and the child is the result of another donor. Charlie, however, is dubious, insisting that the child looks an awful lot like Gil, and sets about trying to prove this in increasingly outrageous ways. Mamie (Lisa Kudrow), plagued by doubts and neuroses of her own, is now an abortion counselor having an affair with a massage therapist named Javier (Bobby Cannavale) who specializes in massage with full release. One day a skittish and unpredictable young filmmaker named Nicky (Jesse Bradford) with hopes of getting into a good school shows up at Mamie’s door with an intriguing bit of dirt on her which he wishes to use to further his goals with an interesting documentary. Although she is outraged at his intentions to blackmail her, she instead redirects his lens toward Javier (“An immigrant making a living in the sex industry! It’s the American dream!” she insists), in an attempt to bargain for a piece of information he has that she’s interested in. The next and by far most compelling and fully fleshed-out character we meet is the gold-digging Jude (Maggie Gyllenhaal). Jude meets Otis (Jason Ritter) who works at Charley’s restaurant, in case you were wondering what the connection was, when he, impressed with her karaoke skills, offers her a spot in his band while their current singer is in rehab. Realizing that Otis comes from money, Jude promptly seduces him, despite his band-mates’ insistence that Otis is gay. When it becomes clear to Jude that Otis really is gay, she sets her sights on his father Frank (Tom Arnold) as her next meal ticket.
Work it, girlfriend...
There’s obviously a lot going on here for the viewer to keep track of, but director Don Roos thinks we can handle it. However, foregoing the deeper character development of his The Opposite of Sex in favor of ten separate, often overlapping characters’ stories, Roos sometimes sacrifices the likeablility of these people to the film’s complexity. For example; Pam and Diane become little more than bitter harpies in the face of Charley’s utterly unforgivable schemes to get them to admit their child’s paternal origins, even though Coogan’s desperate mugging ensure that we never stop loving him in spite of his atrocious lies. Even Gil is reduced to nothing more than some one-dimensional sperm donor by the time the credits roll. But what surprised me, personally, was that I went in excited to see Bobby Cannavale again (whose Joe was truly one of my favorite things about The Station Agent) and totally dreading having to sit through even three seconds of screen time featuring Tom Arnold. Ironically, Tom Arnold turned out to be one of the best things about Happy Endings as Jude’s hapless mark Frank. Cannavale, sadly, didn’t fare as well. Coming off as cartoonish through most of the film, he takes an unexpected turn for the ugly at the end that feels sudden and disappointing. But the best performances in the film come from Roos’ winking gift for casting against type and his ability to make us care about and worry for the fates of what at first appear to be the worst bastards of the bunch. It’s not easy to make us love the unlovable, but Roos does it time and time again, and Happy Endings is no exception.
Despite reducing a few characters to props a few times, Happy Endings rarely missteps as it navigates the difficult structure an ensemble piece of this scale demands. It manages to be funny despite the weight of some of the issues and the cloudy natures of some of the characters. It keeps the pace bopping along and doesn’t over-explain itself too much, regarding the audience as intelligent enough to figure out most things on it’s own, an approach I always appreciate.
Not served with the usual helpings of sugar or cheese, not everyone gets the happy ending we’d expect, which makes Happy Endings a spicy, satisfying, altogether delightful little dish. Delicious.
By: Jen Cameron
Published on: 2005-08-01