Judge Brendan Babish tipped the usher at the movie theater an extra twenty bucks, but he only ended up with extra butter on his popcorn.
Our reviews of Happy Endings: The Complete First Season (published September 28th, 2011), Happy Endings: The Complete Second Season (published October 6th, 2012), and Happy Endings: The Complete Third Season (published December 12th, 2013) are also available.
All's well that ends swell
Happy Endings, the third feature from writer-director Don Roos, follows his minor indie hit The Opposite of Sex and his bland studio flop Bounce. The Opposite of Sex is an unapologetically offensive film about a 16-year old female sexpot who visits her gay half-brother and ends up seducing his boyfriend and gleefully wreaking havoc on all their lives. Bounce is a tired, conventional romance starring Ben Affleck and Gwyneth Paltrow that is one of the most forgettable films of the decade. Which way is Happy Endings going to go?
Facts of the Case
Mamie (Lisa Kudrow, Friends) is a counselor in an abortion clinic who is forced to examine her past when Nicky (Jesse Bradford, Swimfan), a struggling filmmaker, promises to reunite her with the son she gave up for adoption, provided she allows him to film the reunion for a documentary.
Mamie's ineffectual step-brother, Charley (Steve Coogan, Around the World in 80 Days), is gay. His partner, Gil (David Sutcliffe, Under the Tuscan Sun), is friends with a lesbian couple to whom he once donated sperm. The couple does indeed have a baby, but they allegedly used an anonymous donor, not Gil's sperm. Charley is not so sure and soon becomes obsessed with proving his theory that his friends are lying so they won't have to share the child with Gil.
The young, affable, and gay Otis (Jason Ritter, Raise Your Voice), who works in Charley's restaurant, meets the sly, gold digging Jude (Maggie Gyllenhaal, Secretary). After taking a tour of Otis' palatial home, Jude seduces the confused teenager and uses their relationship as a stepping-stone to get to his father, Frank (Tom Arnold, Soul Plane). As her relationship with Frank progresses, Jude finds herself developing genuine feelings for him, much to Otis' dismay.
It is difficult to judge the quality of Happy Endings as a whole because its three vignettes vary greatly in quality. By far, the most engaging story involves Otis, his father, and the vampish Jude. No other characters or plots in the movie come close to equaling the strange intensity between Jude and Frank, who are both played brilliantly by Gyllenhaal and Arnold (and yes, this is the same Tom Arnold who was once married to Roseanne; I'm as surprised as you are). Jude is by far the most passionate and enticing character in this movie, and Gyllenhaal's performance is so good that the rest of the film suffers when she is not on screen (thankfully Roos' original choice for Jude, Gwyneth Paltrow, dropped out before filming started).
The uneven story involving Mamie, her masseuse boyfriend Javier (Bobby Cannavale, The Station Agent), and Nicky is less effective, despite Kudrow's fine efforts. She imbues Marmie with an apt weariness and uncertainty that again proves she has by far the strongest dramatic chops of the Friends cast. Her performance is all the more impressive when contrasted with Cannavale and Bradford, both of whom inadvisably go for laughs by playing their characters as kooky eccentrics. While the script calls for Marmie to develop romantic feelings for Nicky, on screen their attraction rings false. Additionally, her relationship with Javier is entirely confusing. To begin with, Javier is supposedly Mexican, yet Cannavale does not look Hispanic and speaks with a cartoonish Mexican accent. Also, if Javier is Mamie's boyfriend, as opposed to just a boy toy, why does she frequent his massage parlor when she could just get the same thing at home for free? However, an engaging story and Kudrow's performance trump these problems and provide a worthy counterweight to Jude and Frank's romance.
The weakest story by far is Charley's. Whereas Jude and Mamie both struggle with decisions that will drastically alter their lives, Charley merely indulges a fanciful theory that does not even affect him as much as his apathetic boyfriend Gil. In addition, whereas Jude and Mamie both display an earnestness that is endearing, Charley just comes off as shallow and neurotic. Jude and Mamie both act recklessly at times, but their ability to self-reflect and learn from their mistakes is a rare and refreshing trait to see in a character. Charley never grows, never learns, and his poorly thought out schemes (involving vague hereditary diseases and DNA tests) play more like the plot of a Friday night sitcom than the stuff of great drama. Additionally, Gil and his lesbian friends never respond to Charley's odd behavior as real people would (with suspicion and extreme annoyance). Instead everyone goes through the motions in their contrived roles with the obvious intent of bringing the story to Roos' pre-conceived conclusion. If this story were released as a stand-alone short film, instead of being allowed to take refuge among two far superior vignettes, its lack of coherence or plausibility would be even more pronounced.
Still, with two strong stories, Happy Endings is a film worth seeing. Roos has a clever, engaging style that was muted in Bounce, but is back on full display here. Oddly enough, one of Roos' greatest assets—his ability to keep the action light and bouncy—blunts the drama of the film's most intense moments. In the film's brazen opening sequence, Mamie is running down the street (running to someone? away from someone?) and is blindsided by an SUV. While she lies bleeding on the asphalt a distracting side title tells us that she is not dead. The titles go on to tell us this is a comedy.
Though these side titles provide a few chuckles, too often Roos uses them to diffuse any tension or drama in an effort to maintain a light tone. No matter how precarious the situation, the audience knows Roos would never allow anything truly horrible to happen to his characters. Additionally, no matter how effective his stories are, they all seem somehow faintly contrived. On the director's commentary, Roos sometimes mentions how much he likes a certain character, as if they were people he had actually met. While that is sweet, I imagine it also prevents him from allowing tragic things to happen to them. Although Happy Endings is a good film, Roos will probably never make a great film until he allows his characters the free will to wreak real havoc on themselves.
Lions Gate has done a fair job putting together this DVD. The picture is a little bit washed out in scenes with a lot of sunlight, but not enough to hamper the viewing experience. The commentary track features Don Roos, cinematographer Clark Mathis, and Lisa Kudrow. The three get along like old friends but don't really have anything that interesting to say. The rest of the extras are negligible, although there is a gag reel of Tom Arnold cracking up the cast with dirty jokes that is mildly amusing.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Despite my reservations about the movie as a whole, the scenes between Jude and Frank are undeniably great. The scene when they are eating dinner together in Frank's bedroom is subtle and tragic and glorious all at once. It is also the only time in the film where the side-titles actually enrich the action.
Now, imagine a sex scene with Tom Arnold that is not disgusting, or even disturbing, but actually sweet. Well, imagine no more my friends, because that scene is here.
Anyone who liked The Opposite of Sex will probably enjoy Happy Endings. Both films are smug and cynical and have strengths that ultimately outweigh their obvious flaws. Hopefully, Happy Endings will find an audience on DVD because Roos has a distinctive, original voice and this film's poor performance at the box office may silence it.
Despite minor infractions, Roos is free to go under his own recognizance.
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Scales of Justice
• Commentary by Don Roos, Clark Mathis, and Lisa Kudrow
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