Review By: Staff
Movies in which large ensembles of seemingly unrelated characters are tied together tenuously through disparate events are delicate creatures that must be handled with just the right touch. If the film is nurtured like Nashville, for example, it can blossom into a beautiful cinematic bouquet of equally special characters arranged together by a consistent, overarching. Without proper care, it can wilt under the pressure of maintaining so many different strands. I am happy to report that Don Roos' Happy Endings falls into the first category. Roos, who's previous films were the indie sensation The Opposite of Sex and the under-appreciated Bounce, weaves together a series of stories that masquerade as tangents of a darkly cynical comedy but in actually exist as a tender compilation of unlikely love stories.
One ofRoos' acting accomplices from The Opposite of Sex, Lisa Kudrow, stars as Mamie. This is not the zany, nails-on-chalkboard kind of Kudrow that one might expect based on her work on Friends. This is an aged and depressed Kudrow who acts out her scenes with her eyes not with an unpredictable motor-mouth. Her character, Mamie, is a fractured soul who was impregnated by her stepbrother Charley at the age of sixteen. At the time, Mamie was a troubled teen looking for a way to get out of her uncomfortable home and uses her unsuspecting stepbrother as that launching pad. What she didn't count on was being talked out of her planned abortion at the clinic and put the baby up for adoption instead.
Eighteen years later, Mamie is still haunted by her secret. She finds shallow solace in the arms of a Mexican masseuse named Javier (Bobby Cannavale). Her faÃƒÂ§ade of complacency is disrupted when a brash, wannabe-filmmaker named Nicky (Jesse Bradford) arrives, claiming to know the whereabouts of her lost child. But there's a catch. He blackmails her with the information so that he can film their reunion as a documentary that he hopes will earn him an AFI scholarship to film school.
Meanwhile, the adult Charley (Steve Coogan) is a restaurateur living with his life partner of five years, Gil (David Sutcliffe). Gil's best friend Pam (Laura Dern) and her lesbian lover Dianne (Sarah Chalke) have just had a baby through artificial insemination. Gil is overjoyed for them but Charley is suspicious, secretly accusing the two of using Gil's donated sperm without admitting to it.
Then there's also Otis (Jason Ritter), a 22-year-old drummer who works at Charley's restaurant. He sticks around with the dead-end job because he's long harbored an attraction to Charley but can't bring himself to admit his homosexuality to his kind hearted but close-minded father, Frank (Tom Arnold).
It' all very complicated but it's never wearisome. Roos paces the film so well that there isn't a single moment of time-to-check-the-watch inclination. For an over two-hour film that some might accuse of being too frothy for such a long running time, the events fly by at a perfect speed. His accomplishment is enabled by one cosmetic device and one artistic device. On the cosmetic side, he keeps things moving by incorporating pitch-perfect music (occasionally sung by Gyllenhall herself) that creates smooth transitions between stories. The other aide is his use of subtitles. Well, I guess they are too predominate to be classified as "sub."Â Instead of including a voice-over, he uses invasive textual excerpts as a conduit for the tool of an omnipresent, unrestricted, third-person-narrator. These blurbs appear sporadically throughout the film. Sometimes unexpectedly and usually revealing something we hadn't yet thought about. Roos delights in giving the narrator free reign over the diegesis. It can see into the future, recap past events, voice unspoken thoughts and even monitor characters' bladder control.
Another reason the film flows so effortlessly is the universally strong acting. Each actor is called upon to oscillate between comedy and drama at a moment's notice and every single one of them is up to the challenge. The funniest performance comes from Jesse Bradford who has a zippy delivery that screams improvisation while still managing to accentuate what a tragic figure he ultimately is. Steve Coogan is a comic talent that I greatly admire but it's his dramatic work here that really deserves recognition. Pay close attention to the way he plays a scene late in the film in which he is delivered some very bad news. It's the one scene that paws at overblown melodrama but Coogan reins it back in by using a heartbreakingly subtle reaction to voice his internal plight. Speaking of internal reactions, who would have thought Tom Arnold was capable of underplaying his role as well as he does. It's hard to imagine this is the same guy who starred in such bombastically noisy fare as McHale's Navy.
I suspect that those who enjoy Happy Endings will also appreciate a little-seen Irish gem from 2003 called Intermission, starring Kelly Macdonald, Cillian Murphy and Collin Farrell. Both are films about characters finding happiness where they least expected it. And at the same time, effortlessly persuading the spectator to find humor out of situations that don't correspond to standard comedic conventions.
A standard Making Of featurette showcases the principle actors complementing Don Roos (deservedly) on a job well done while detailing various elements of the plot. Nothing too enlightening to be found in this 11-and-a-half minute supplement.
Next, there's Deleted Scenes that can also be viewed with
Gags features alternate takes from three scenes in the film. One is Tom Arnold basically doing stand-up, another is Kudrow and Cannavale battling a case of the giggles and the last is Coogan repeatedly flubbing his difficult "fact"Â monologue. This is one of the better gag reels I've seen because it isn't bloated with inside jokes or excessive mistakes.
A Montage comes equipped with optional commentary once again and features snippets of character contemplation that are inconsequential to the plot, but add depth to the characters. Roos explains that he wanted the actors to stay in character for a few minutes before and after the takes in order to capture these quiet moments.
Lastly, there is a Feature-Length Audio Commentary with the fearless trio yet again. They are playful in tone and joke around amicably while also discussing the film's origins, the difficulty to get it financed and the technical approach. Roos recalls how much he hated being forced by the studio to shoot Bounce in a conventional style and his work on Happy Endings is a way of letting loose that frustration. From listening to the commentary we can tell that Roos is very eager to collaborate with his actors and loves giving them the opportunity to experiment. At one point he mentions how much he loves shots of people thinking in silence. Which is fortunate because these moments of insular contemplation may not move the plot forward rapidly but are part of the reason the film works so well. Hearing the three chat so giddily about their filmmaking experience mimics a scene in the film in which Mamie, Javier and Nicky sit down to watch a cut of their documentary with uncontrollable excitement. The only difference is that the creative team behind Happy Endings has something to be truly excited about.
Movie Grade: A-
DVD Grade: B+
Overall Grade: A-