Judge Chris Claro ties one on with the guy from Betsy's Wedding and his buddy, Rocky Dennis.
A love story, straight up, with a twist.
From The Lost Weekend to Barfly to Wonder Boys, the alcoholic writer has long been a cinematic conceit. Is there anything more romantic—and self-glorifying—than pounding out the great American novel while slowly self-destructing?
But unless a filmmaker brings something novel—no pun intended—to the cinematic barstool, the danger of cliché looms like a morning-after headache. The question I pondered as Happy Hour began was whether director Mike Bencivenga and scribe Richard Levine would offer up a fizzy, Mai Tai-ish concoction, or flat beer from a skunky tap.
Facts of the Case
Tulley (Anthony LaPaglia, Without a Trace) is a self-described "drinker with a writing problem," who supports his booze habit by editing copy at an ad agency. "Drudgery's cathedral" is how he literarily sees it. When Tulley meets Natalie (Caroleen Feeny, Max), a child-hating schoolteacher who can go glass-for-glass with him in the tournament of imbibery, it seems a match made in heaven. Throw in Tulley's wisecracking, equally dissolute buddy Levine (Eric Stoltz, Some Kind of Wonderful), and you're looking at a potentially rollicking good time with a trio of wisecracking New York rummies.
But are you really? Stories of alcoholics, no matter how charming and lovable the drinkers might be, are usually cautionary tales, and, as such, are all about the effects, physical and otherwise, of addiction. (The only story I can think of where the drinker neither cleaned up nor died is Arthur, which gets a pass because it's nothing but a fairy tale from the first frame.) Would Happy Hour be a charming romp leading to redemption, or the slow decline of one of the New York literati?
Turns out that Happy Hour is a little of both, and, as such, is analogous to the life of the alcoholic: carefree and jaunty in the beginning, but ultimately dark and joyless.
Failed novelist Tulley is the literate rogue who parks his carcass on a barstool for his nightly happy hour. Challenged one night to a game of pool by the flinty and disillusioned Natalie, Tulley finds himself in a sudden—and sodden—romance with the teacher.
Seemingly the only thing in his life that brings him happiness, the relationship blossoms, even as the specter of the destructive effects of alcohol loom in every other aspect of Tulley's life. From a failed office romance to a non-relationship with his father (Robert Vaughn, BASEketball), Tulley's life has been emotionally stunted by drink, a fact he accepts almost gladly. Natalie, though falling in love with Tulley, grows increasingly aware of her own alcohol dependence as she realizes Tulley will never be able to conquer his. When the inevitable occurs, Natalie and Levine pool their emotional strength to help their friend through his dark passage. As much as Tulley appears to despise himself, he's not without support.
LaPaglia's Tulley is a man of missed promise, whose every drink keeps him about a half-step ahead of his abject self-loathing, with his wit and panache apparent only as long as the high lasts. Though perhaps looking a bit too hale for the part of a broken-down drunk, Lapaglia's weary, wary eyes and his whiskey-and-cigarettes timbre convey the essence of addiction. Whether charming bar mates, chewing out underlings, or suffering the ravages of the DTs, LaPaglia's ability to convey Tulley's increasingly darkening colors is impressive.
As Levine, Stoltz imbues the stock sidekick role with a sardonic outlook and great hair. Never judging his friend, Levine regards Tulley with a combination of admiration and sadness, knowing where Tulley's been and where he's headed. Underplaying, but still making an impression, Stoltz gives LaPaglia the room to make Tulley the big dog.
The real revelation in Happy Hour is Caroleen Feeny. Eschewing theatrics, Feeny makes Natalie a real, gritty, sexy woman. Awakened from her alcoholic torpor by another drinker, Natalie slowly emerges as a woman with more to look forward to than the next drink. As Natalie's smoky cynicism melts away, Feeny shows a vulnerability that is affecting and ultimately heartbreaking.
Happy Hour's modest charms lie in its ability to take an old tale and spiff it up with creditable performers. Despite some location shooting, though, it doesn't really convey the thump and buzz of New York City. Populating one scene with New York writers Pete Hamill and Steve Dunleavy may seem authentic, but their appearances come out of nowhere, and serve merely as stunt cameos.
Wellspring's spartan packaging of Happy Hour belies the wealth of extras on the disc. Director Bencivenga's commentary is informative and sprightly, offering extensive background on the production. Along with the requisite deleted scenes, there's also an excellent three-minute "Shot by Shot" segment which spotlights the film's New York locations and reveals some exterior footage actually shot in L.A.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Charm and good acting only carry a movie so far, and can't rescue it from a hackneyed script. Writers Bencivenga and Levine provide a schematic, seen-it-before story, blunting Happy Hour's emotional impact. A few more surprises might have made this film truly memorable, rather than just a moderately engaging time-filler.
Fans of the Without a Trace LaPaglia are well advised to avail themselves of Happy Hour to see what an actor can do when he's not constrained by the shackles of episodic TV. LaPaglia's acting, as well as that of Stoltz and Feeny, make Happy Hour worth a look, despite its uninspired script.
Not guilty by reason of inebriation.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Wellspring Media
• Commentary by Director Mike Bencivenga
Review content copyright © 2006 Chris Claro; Site design and review layout copyright © 2013 Verdict Partners LLC. All rights reserved.