Judge Clark Douglas' happy tears are often accompanied by sad laughter.
Family works in funny ways.
There are some rather fine performances in Happy Tears, and a few strong moments that leave quite an impression. Even so, the film desperately needed someone to grab it by the shoulders and shout, "Get a grip on yourself!" Alas, it seems no one did this, and we're left with one of those indie films that just about drowns under the weight of its own quirks.
The film centers on the relationship between two sisters. Jayne (Parker Posey, Superman Returns) is a wealthy, cheerful, energetic person who seems to live inside a bubble. She has lots of naïve ideas about how the world works and generally tends to think the best of everyone. Laura (Demi Moore, G.I. Jane) is older, wiser, cynical and sort of worn out. She regards those around her with skepticism and deals with her sister in a gently condescending manner. The two sisters are brought together for the first time in a long time due to the troubles of their father Joe (Rip Torn, The Man Who Fell to Earth), who seems to be suffering from dementia.
Joe has always been a colorful character, but his behavior of late seems to go past "colorful" and into the realm of "troubling." For instance, he's dating a woman named Shelly (Ellen Barkin, Sea of Love) who claims to be a nurse but who is obviously just a crackhead wearing a stethoscope. Even so, Joe believes every word that she says and trusts her completely. He's also particularly insistent on the idea that he has some sort of buried treasure in the backyard, which he claims he will bestow upon his daughters after he dies. Also, he finds himself sitting in his own feces on a regular basis.
That last problem leads to a scene in which we watch the two sisters attempt to clean their father's mess. This should have been a matter-of-fact little side detail, but writer/director Mitchell Lichtenstein (who previously gave us Teeth, the story of a girl with vagina dentata) insists on lingering on this moment as long as possible. We see Jayne foolishly attempting to clean her father with her bare hands, Joe's look of confusement, Laura's looks of disgust, plenty of close-ups of the muddy mess and so on. It's indicative of the film's attitude whenever it comes across anything odd; it takes entirely too much delight in finding anti-conventional ways of telling its story.
I say "anti-conventional" because that's honestly what it is. The storytelling decisions do not seem rooted in a desire to tell the story in as truthful a manner as possible, but rather in a manner that contrasts with convention as much as possible. Are you one of those people who grew irritated with the forced quirks of Little Miss Sunshine and Juno? If so, you'll most assuredly want to avoid what Happy Tears has to offer, from its refusal to embrace genuine emotion to its cutesy presentation of moments that ought to be treated seriously. I should note that I actually like Little Miss Sunshine and Juno, but found Happy Tears quite grating much of the time.
What makes the film so difficult to dismiss is the work put in by the actors. This particularly applies to Rip Torn and Ellen Barkin, who plunge themselves with fearless abandon into remarkably unflattering roles. These are the sort of parts that many older actors fear, as there's concern that they may have trouble getting strong parts again if people perceive them as weak and senile (Michael Caine said that after doing the Alzheimer's drama Is Anybody There? he refused to take any scripts where he wasn't playing a mentally and physically strong character). Parker Posey and Demi Moore play off each other nicely, generating a refreshingly improvisational spirit and offering a number of touchingly nuanced moments. It's certainly not the fault of the cast that things turn out as badly as they do.
The DVD transfer gets the job done, offering solid detail and depth throughout. The film's most visually remarkable section is a fantasy sequence that takes place underwater, which really pops off the screen. Otherwise, the movie has a rather plain, standard-issue look. Audio is fine as well, with an eclectic (no, seriously) blend of pop tunes, blues numbers and brooding original score selections. The only supplements are a commentary with Lichtenstein and a theatrical trailer.
The actors are free to go, but the film is guilty.
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