It's easy for a talented filmmaker to get high on his own talent and fall head over heels in love with his story and characters, to the point where the audience is left somewhat on the outside, peering in through the filmmaker's structural window dressing and trying to figure out what the hell is going on. Don Roos (The Opposite of Sex) has the ability to be one of those guys, and comes close to it in his Short Cuts-esque panoramic comedy Happy Endings but avoids temptation - for the better enjoyment of everyone involved.
The title is a joke, sort of, like much of the film. It starts with a panicked Lisa Kudrow running frantically through a residential neighborhood, dashing out into the street and getting hit by a car. Then a split screen informs us that she's actually not dead, that "no one dies in this movie," and the film proceeds, in the same jokey, needling manner, to introduce us to the rest of the players in this Los Angeles smashed relationship derby. Kudrow plays Mamie, a tense woman emotionally scarred after that time in her adolescence when got pregnant and gave the baby up for adoption. That memory comes smashing back into her life when wannabe documentarian Nicky (Jesse Bradford, gloriously clueless) shows up, claiming to be friends with her son, and saying he'll reunite them, but only if Mamie helps him make his debut film. Mamie's contribution to said project is the participation of her masseuse boyfriend Javier (Bobby Cannavale), pretending to be a gigolo for the sake of Nicky's awful excuse for a documentary.
Although the movie seems at first like a vehicle for Kudrow - who similarly shone in Roos' Opposite of Sex - it wanders away from her story for long stretches of time to follow two other tangentially related bundles of dysfunction. Roos sets up shop in the house of Frank (Tom Arnold), a wealthy and dim-witted but basically well-meaning guy whose gay son Otis (Jason Ritter) brings home Jude, a manipulative stray in the form of Maggie Gyllenhaal. Jude, a smoky singer when she wants to be, wheedles her way into the household by first seducing Otis and then setting her sights on the hapless father. Less interesting, the film also looks into the troubles of Charley (Steve Coogan), a restaurateur connected to the film by the happenstance of being Mamie's stepbrother and Otis' employer (as well as the object of Otis' forlorn affection). There's a long and none-too-involving subplot involving Charley and his boyfriend's donation of sperm to a lesbian couple (Laura Dern and Sarah Clarke) who are also their best friends. It's fortunate that Coogan, as we've seen time and again, can make golden the weakest dialogue and so is able to spin some magic out of the relatively mundane scenarios he is dealt.
It's easy to see why Roos was able to line up as excellent a cast as he did for Happy Endings, as he's easily only one of the smarter comedy filmmakers working in the business today, knowing exactly how to mix the sweet and the bitchy without ever making it seem calculating and coming up with all the zinging lines that Paul Rudnick just wishes he had the imagination for. Although he gives Kudrow most of the best dialogue, in her tense and comically fraught relationship with the hapless Nicky ("As my extortionist, your insights are especially important"), Ross dishes out enough rich material to give everyone enough to work with. Oddly enough, Gyllenhaal and Arnold's exchanges are some of the film's most interesting, with Arnold giving a nuanced and quiet rendition of a middle-aged man who is quite aware of his many limitations, but tries to exceed them nonetheless. And Gyllenhaal's rapacious user is reminiscent (not surprisingly) of Christina Ricci from Opposite of Sex, only more quietly dangerous and alluring.
Roos doesn't pull all his strands together quite as convincingly as he could have, though perhaps that's a compliment. In the end, he seems more interested in finding out where all his characters are going to end up, less so in connecting the dots between all of them, as often happens in ensemble comedies of this sort. It's a quieter, less uproarious sort of film than Sex, less intent on smashing conventions of morality and narrative, though likely it will age much better with time. This is a relationship comedy for people who hate relationship comedies.