Title: Happy Endings
Genre: Comedy, Drama, Music
Director: Don Roos
Screenwriters: Don Roos
Starring: Lisa Kudrow, Steve Coogan, Maggie Gyllenhaal
Yes, this is one of those movies: a lengthy (though reasonably so) pastiche of plots and situations concerning the lives of several groups of characters, all of which inevitably intertwine in unexpected ways. To this reliable old framework, director Don Roos adds a glib, sarcastic mentality, with lots of humorous title cards and meta jokes. It’s the kind of maneuver to which I tend to react negatively — filmmakers trying to “spice up” a potentially engaging storyline with forced hipness and self-consciousness; I’m obsessed with narrative, and usually deride moves that interfere with same. In this case, though, I can’t complain very much: Happy Endings is genuinely clever and very funny, and all the joking around serves to distract from what is actually an uneven, often absurd series of storylines.
Meanwhile, Roos pulls the familiar stunt of opening his movie with a crucial scene from the third act, which is subsequently repeated in context to much oohing and aahing from the appreciative public, finally realizing who/what they were seeing before/during/just after the opening titles. It’s a cheap display of would-be cleverness, if you ask me, a ploy that takes no effort and usually serves little purpose except to artificially make the film “more memorable,” and occasionally add a layer of mystery to sustain viewers through the middle of the film. But, in keeping with the general theme, Roos adds an amusing twist to this convention, hilariously spoiling the hypothetical mystery and setting a tone for the rest of the film, which usually (though sadly, not always) finds ways to laugh at tragedy.
The characters we meet back in 1973 — 17 year-old Mamie Toll and her stepbrother, who impulsively sleep together, leading to “Abortion Day” — split into two plots in the present day, with the boy, Charley (Steve Coogan), growing up to be a gay restauranteur, and Mamie (Lisa Kudrow) an abortion counselor. Their respective stories follow essentially the same path, beginning poignantly, degenerating into farce, and then attempting to salvage as much emotional impact as possible by finishing strong (or at least with a straight face). The third involves a girl (Maggie Gyllenhaal) brutally leeching onto a naive 22 year-old kid (Jason Ritter) who may or may not be gay, and his father (Tom Arnold), who certainly is rich. That one, at least, manages to maintain a consistent tone, always vaguely sad and with an air of bemusement.
The film doesn’t always seem comfortable with its eclectic mix of broad comedy and heartrending drama, as evidenced in Charley’s attempt to prove that his best friend and her girlfriend used his lover’s sperm to get pregnant. It’s funny enough, and to the film’s credit it often cleverly undercuts itself (“In his defense, Charley thought twice about the following strategy, but the gloves are off when people start stealing sperm”), but when it comes time for the payoff, there’s nothing there — we were simply never engaged on that level, and the film’s attempts at pathos are ineffective.
Often, the performances work to sustain otherwise fledgling scenarios. Maggie Gyllenhaal, for example, does wonders to elevate a character written as just a manipulative brat, making her alluring and wounded. And Tom Arnold, of all people, finds all the right notes for his vulnerable, insecure fat cat, and, at least on general terms, I bought his relationship with his son (also a nice performance by Jason Ritter). This storyline is easily the film’s greatest boon; it is both the most inherently involving, and the most conducive to Roos’ sardonic sense of humor.
The last story, and the one I’ve talked about least, is profoundly neither here nor there, a ridiculous little ditty about a fake documentary, a missing son and an increasingly ornery Mexican masseur. It amounts to nothing much on its own, as, really, do the others. But Happy Endings keeps taking jabs at itself and going in unexpected directions; finally, in its last scenes, it becomes affecting for its simple, sincere faith in the potential for happiness. It’s uneven, interesting and nice.