Happy Endings Movie Review

A comedy-of-life roundelay about several sexually mixed-updenizens of L.A., "Happy Endings" returns writer-director DonRoos to the sardonic psychological territory he trod in his stinging black-humordebut "The Opposite of Sex."

After opening with a hysterical woman named Mamie (LisaKudrow) getting hit by a car, he introduces a humorously detached meta-filmnarration style when the screen splits in two, and words appear on a blackbackground to reassure us that "No one dies in this movie. It's acomedy. Sort of."

"What happens next," the lettering continues,"was 20 years ago" -- at which point we learn that Mamie gotknocked up at 16 and was supposed to have an abortion, but secretly gaveup the baby for adoption. The unknowing father was her stepbrother Charley(Steve Coogan), who is now gay ("Who isn't?" quips the text onthe screen) and has run the family restaurant business into the groundsince the death of their parents.

But Roos is just getting warmed up. Soon an aspiring documentaryfilmmaker (a scruffy Jesse Bradford) with zero scruples is offering angry,neurotic Mamie information about her son -- but only if he can make a movieabout their reunion. Connected more loosely to these characters are a lesbiancouple (Laura Dern and Sarah Clarke) who may have secretly conceived theirchild with Charley's boyfriend's sperm, and Jude (Maggie Gyllenhaal), ablunt and sultry free-spirited young gold-digger who seduces a sexuallyconflicted rich kid (Jason Ritter) on her way to landing a much biggerfish -- his lonely dad (Tom Arnold).

Although these stories sometimes slide in disingenuousdirections and couldn't stand on their own (they're largely predicatedon slightly deeper versions of sitcom misunderstandings), Roos has a giftfor weaving good laughs out of human failings and frailties. What's more,he knows how to churn up trauma and unsuspected depth in actors not hithertoknown for their abilities to emote.

Strong performances are to be expected from talents likeKudrow (who worked for Roos in "Sex") and the enormously giftedGyllenhaal ("Secretary"),the centers of the film's two main stories. But who would expect that often-monosyllabicArnold (known mostly for Fox's "The Best Damn Sports Show") couldfind such sad-sack heart playing an insecure father? Or that the blankstare of Ritter (son of John, who has made mostly horror movies) couldbecome a symbol of an unmolded soul? Or that Bradford (known for teen farelike "Clockstoppers"and "Swimfan"before playing gay in last month's "Heights")could so successfully tap his inner sleezeball -- and in a way that stillfinds a touch of crude charm.

"That's not a zoom, by the way," he smirks toKudrow while showing her a shot of his crotch in the movie he's making."That's the way it is -- like a penis, only bigger."

It's the fact that these characters are interesting andcomplicated that makes the ironically titled "Happy Endings"work despite Roos' sometimes obvious plot devices. Well, that and the enjoyablyodd asides of text narration that sometimes see into the future as wellas the past.

Some may see the film's self-aware commentary as a screenwritingcrutch or a cheat that takes emotional interpretation out of the audience'shands. But really it's just Roos' way of stepping back to point out thewarped but heartfelt humor in situations his characters wouldn't find funnyat all.

Comments

Happy Endings Rating

" OK "

Rating: R, LIMITED: Friday, July 15, 2005

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