Happy Endings, Don Roos' comedy of love, sex and parental instincts, joins Crash, Short Cuts and Magnolia as one of those films that trails countless intersecting characters across sprawling Los Angeles. Maybe the trend reflects the subconscious of the film industry. If you spent so many waking hours driving and reading film scripts, life might feel like a blur of merging freeways and overlapping storylines.
Where Crash attempted to encompass American racism, Happy Endings weighs in on sex and parenting. Happy Endings' three primary stories crisscross like tangled strands of DNA, so Roos provides a showy narrative that makes the plot clear but the tone insufferable.
Happy Endings begins with a panicky Mamie (Lisa Kudrow) running from unseen pursuit, darting into the street, and BLAMMO! crashing into a moving vehicle. (Nothing spooks Los Angelenos more than car crashes.) We're still reeling from shock when Kudrow's image shrinks to half-screen, while on the other half, white-on-black words calmly state: "She isn't dead. This isn't that kind of movie."
In Roos' first and best film, The Opposite of Sex, Christina Ricci's jail-bait femme fatale commented on the action with a deadpan lack of sentiment, and Endings' narrative asides prove similarly arch. Roos doesn't just fill in character histories, he anticipates how we'll feel about them. A text message about Mamie reads, "Don't worry if you don't like her." It's not as distracting were Roos were to flash his 8 x 10 on the screen like a pop-up ad, but it's close.
As teenagers, Mamie and her English stepbrother, Charley (Steve Coogan), had an affair that ended with her pregnancy. He believes she had an abortion, but she secretly put the infant up for adoption. In the present day, the childless siblings each wrestle with unresolved parenting issues. Meanwhile, Charley grows obsessed over the identity of the unknown sperm donor for a pair of lesbian moms (Laura Dern and "24's" Sarah Clarke). And Mamie, a counselor at an abortion clinic, reluctantly helps a strung-out would-be filmmaker (Jesse Bradford) who claims to know Mamie's long-lost son.
The best subplot goes to the least extremes. Mercenary hottie Jude (Maggie Gyllenhaal) first seduces gay-leaning young musician Otis (Jason Ritter), then his rich, widowed father, Frank (Tom Arnold). Gyllenhaal slinks away with the movie. A huge-eyed, fearless coquette and sensual nightclub singer, Jude expertly manipulates men of any sexual orientation, as if they'd rather be used by her than ignored.
Strong, sharply observed performances hold Happy Endings together. Even Arnold has funny, unforced moments as a father embarrassingly relieved by the (mistaken) idea that his son is straight. Happy Endings approaches something like a contemporary Hannah and Her Sisters for gays and breeders alike. Neurotic, impulsive Charley provides the closest thing to a Woody Allen character. Though Coogan usually puffs up as a pompous know-it-all, he underplays Charley's self-esteem problems without watering down the humor.
Happy Endings explores the flip side of Tolstoy's declaration that "Happy families are all alike." The movie depicts no traditional households, just surrogate families and broken homes, and they prove as fragile and confused as dysfunctional nuclear families.
Though Roos writes snappy dialogue and works well with actors, a mean streak runs through Happy Endings. The opening car wreck and a quasi-incestuous subplot simply provide hooks for audience attention with few serious consequences. Initially, Roos seems to be tweaking stereotypes about crunchy-granola lesbians and Latino Casanovas (Bobby Cannavale plays Mamie's lover, a smoldering masseur), but the film ultimately affirms the clichés.
And it becomes impossible to care about the characters when Roos' asides keep condescending to them. Ultimately, Roos trains us to view everything in the film through a veil of irony, sabotaging Happy Endings' sincere intentions. The last scene, a drawn-out, smoky cover of Billy Joel's "Just the Way You Are," should be an epiphany, but it just feels like something the film would make fun of. Happy Endings ultimately outsmarts itself, leading a promising caravan of stories down a dead-end street.
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