A film review by Craig J. Koban


2005, R, 128 mins.

Jude: Maggie Gyllenhaal / Mamie: Lisa Kudrow / Frank: Tom Arnold / Nicky: Jesse Bradford / Javier: Bobby Cannavale / Charley: Steve Coogan / Pam: Laura Dern / Gil: David Sutcliffe / Otis: Jason Ritter / Diane: Sarah Clarke

Directed by
Don Roos

“Nothing says 'I love you' like blackmail.”

- Mamie,  a character from HAPPY ENDINGS

Don Roos’ HAPPY ENDINGS is one of those films that comes across as being highly self-aware of its own tone and mode.  It also thinks it’s funnier and more satiric than it may actually be.  Roos’ dramedy feels like yet another one of those post-modern ensemble works with a stellar cast and an incredible sarcastic wit and intelligence with it’s own inherent subject matter.  The film is clever – perhaps a bit too clever – and is sharp and sardonic in the way it sort of hums along with its complex interlocking stories and intelligent and perceptive performances.  HAPPY ENDINGS is a real oddball mixture, to be sure; it ostensibly plays a lot like Quentin Tarantino meets DAYS OF OUR LIVES. 

Ultimately, Roos’ work here is highly ambitious - if not a bit too derivative - in terms of approach and execution, and it is genuinely moving and funny in just the right modest dosages.  Oftentimes, the film is so painfully on the mark that you often don’t know when to laugh or feel remorse or sadness.  That, of course, is to the film’s ultimate credit, I think.  Few films of this nature have the lofty aspirations of this one and even fewer films like this have such first rate performances – some of which coming from some very surprising people.  All in all, HAPPY ENDINGS proves to be a flawed, but motivated, determined, and charming film about love, relationships, and the unexpectedness of…well…daily life in general.

Roos definitely knows how to write interesting personas that speak with a frank, matter-of-fact-ness that cuts to the heart of individual scenes.  More often than not, the film has a lurid, subversive, and devious veracity and wit with its story and characters that generally allows it to rise above its obvious contrivances.  HAPPY ENDINGS is guileless, blunt and darkly scatological with its characters and predicaments, so much so that I felt that – after I left the theatre – I remembered the people in it more than the stories they were involved in. 

Much like PULP FICTION, HAPPY ENDINGS tells a series of seemingly unrelated stories (three, to be exact) that slowly begin to weave and interweave upon themselves until they inevitably all find suitable closure together at the film’s conclusion.  As stated, the individual characters that populate some of these respective vignettes are engaging and very well realized, but some of the stories themselves work better than others.  Some of them genuinely involve the audience, even when it initially appears than none of them seem to have any relation to one another.  For a film that runs at over two hours, HAPPY ENDINGS seems to have a difficult time finding a way to make all of these stories – as a cohesive whole – work together.  Whereas some are moving, touching, and cynically hilarious at their cores, others seem borderline farcical at best and work too hard to generate laughs.  Nevertheless, most of the stories from the film can lay claim to the fact that they contain strong, standout performances that – ultimately – are the film's most noteworthy attributes. 

The strongest performances belong to two of the three stories and one in particular easily has one of the most odd love triangles that I have seen recently in a film.  A homeless singer named Jude (played in a tough, hard-edged, and brilliantly seductive performance by Maggie Gyllenhaal) desperately tries to make something of her life.  She’s a fiercely determined and strong person, despite her otherwise ditsy outer façade.  Lightening strikes in the form of an opportunity to strike it rich.  Her plan?  To use a young, closeted gay boy to get to his very wealthy father.  Still with me?  I hope so, because this could get a bit complicated.

Jude is the epitome of a gold-digger and has the tenacity to get what she wants, even if it means trying to seduce a homosexual youth.  The youth in question is a young drummer named Otis (played very well by Jason Ritter, son of the great John Ritter; he bares an amazing resemblance to his father, at least in his young years).  Otis is most assuredly gay the same way Andy Stitzer was most assuredly a 40-year-old virgin.  Otis knows he’s really gay, but just can’t seem to admit it to himself or – more importantly – to his rich, conservative father, Frank (played in a surprisingly effective performance by Tom Arnold).  Otis is emotionally vulnerable to an enormous degree.  He is petrified of having his dad discover his “secret.”  Frank, on the other had, is also vulnerable and lonely.  Like a vulture seeing wounded prey, Jude swoops in immediately and tries to seize what she sees as a golden opportunity.

Jude abuses Otis’ sense of inner defenselessness.  She seduces him and introduces him to heterosexual sex, but Otis does not seem to least bit interested.  Even his bandmates are slowly catching on to his homosexuality (in one of the film’s funnier moments, one of them turns to the other and states, “Why do think he's a drummer? So he can stare at our asses all night.”)  Needless to say, shortly after she beds Otis she abruptly dumps him and sets her sights square on daddy.  Daddy, it seems, has also taken a liking to her.  Otis, of course, is made paranoid and frantic by this scheme, and he should be.  If he intervenes then Jude will tell his dad that he’s gay.  He seems paralyzed by inaction as a result.  Frank, on the other hand, seems to give into Jude’s half-baked love spell so quickly that he begins to ponder spending the rest of his life with her.  Frank emerges as a pathetic and sad figure, reinforcing a notion that older, middle-aged men often can’t seem to see the real motives of conniving, younger women who express interests in them.

The second story (which actually begins the film) has another odd love triangle of sorts.  Mamie (played in another effective performance in the film by Lisa Kudrow) is one of the most depressed counselors ever.  She needs to counsel herself more than her clients.  She is having an illicit affair with her masseuse Javier (Bobby Cannavale) and just when she thinks that her life is not ripe with enough problems, then enters Nicky (Jesse Bradford).  Nicky is a wannabe filmmaker and I highly stress “wannabe.”  He has aspirations of becoming a great film director by going to film school without having realized that he does not seem to know much about the craft of making movies.  Anyhow, he approaches Mamie one day and sort of blackmails her into helping him break into film school.  His plan is simple: she will assist him making a documentary about a women meeting her child that she gave up for adoption decades earlier. 

Here’s the catch: the woman in question is Mamie herself!  She, of course, refuses, but she proposes a solution.  She tells Jesse to tell an alternative tale of how her lover, Javier, is an illegal immigrant who – in secret – gives his clients eroticized massages that result “happy endings” for them.  Nicky loves the idea to make a sleazy film and, in return, agrees to help Mamie with the identity of her long-given up child.  It seems that he knows exactly whom the child is and how to reach him, which stimulates Mamie.  You see, Mamie had the child years ago during a fling with her own stepbrother (I am not fooling).  She got pregnant and decided to have an abortion.  The fact that she becomes an abortion counsellor is laced with irony.  At one point, she can’t seem to understand it either.

The final story is the undeniably weakest of the three and – at least tonally – feels inconsistent with the other two stories.  Steve Coogan plays Charlie, an openly gay man that has inherited his father’s restaurants and manages the one that is still open.  He has a partner, Gil (David Sutcliffe) and they both are close friends with another gay couple, Diane and Pam (Sarah Clarke and Laura Dern).  The lesbian couple wanted – at one point in the past – to have a baby so bad that they asked Gil for a sperm donation.  He did help, but allegedly they did not use his sperm and got assistance from another man.  Charlie is highly dubious of the couple's claim.  He concocts an absolutely loathsome plan to discover whether or not their child is – in fact – Gil’s child as well.  His plan is so vile and cruel that it risks the fabric of all of their friendships simultaneously.

This last story is weak because of its utter contrivance and sitcom mentality to generating laughs.  Their situation erodes so badly and gets to progress further than I think if would actually go.  Notwithstanding that, but their story seem incongruent with the other two tales.  The characters here are only sketchily developed in comparison to the others.  Yes, this plot has an intricate and integral link to one of the stories (which we learn of later in the film), but it seems out of context with the rest of the film.  It’s flimsy and lacks our engagement and seems a bit too ham-infested for the otherwise pessimistic core that the rest of the film generates.  Along with this is my other misgiving of the film in terms of its ending, which takes a bit too long to be carried towards fruition.  The final third of the film seems to take forever to connect all of the narrative dots and, unfortunately, is a bit too saccharine for its own good.  For a film that is as mischievous and gloomy as this one, it could have had more power (and deeply rooted dramatic irony) if it did end on a dour note.  At least that was what I thought I was being led to believe it was aiming for.

Yet, the film works very well on the pervasive strength of its performances.  Gyllenhaal and Kudrow are uniformly great in their respective roles.  Jude is easily the most amoral character in the film and Gyllenhaal’s work is an ingenious balancing act between hedonistic antagonism mixed with sarcastic and brutal honesty further mixed with a hidden layer of low self-worth.  She is a hateful and malicious woman, but you seem to sense that she does not particularly like herself very much.  Kudrow’s role works a bit the same as well.  She too has low self worth, so much so that she is willing to align herself with a cocky and arrogant kid that she distrusts in an effort to find her child.  Kudrow plays her part with desperation and a tactful amount of inner pain.  She has one moment of such honesty and self-reflection that's almost painful to bear.

Jason Ritter finds every right note as the gay youth that fears his father’s scorn and ridicule if he were to ever find out his true leanings.  He brings an earnestness and heartfelt poignancy to his role.  Hs father, on the other hand, is not the unsympathetic cretin you would expect him to be portrayed as.  Tom Arnold’s performance as Frank is a revelation.  He is often known for playing more outright buffoonish characters in films and – when and where applicable – he’s genuinely amusing.  Here he plays a more subtly nuanced role brimming with flaws.  He’s not a straight arrow nor is he a contemptible figure.  He’s a bit of a wounded soul that is a bit too naïve and shortsighted to see through Jude’s lecherous scheme.  Amazingly, you soon grow to care for him almost as much a Otis, which is revealing in how assured Arnold’s work is here.

If it omitted the Charley/Gil/Pam/Diane plotline and focused more on the other two more substantive stories, then HAPPY ENDINGS could have achieved the level of a compelling, clever, and bleakly funny pathos that made for the best of Woody Allen’s earliest films.  The sum of a few of its parts does not make – unfortunately – for a great whole.  Nevertheless, Roos’ film about the nature of relationships and procreation, secrets and lies, and flawed and lonesome souls emerges as both a heartfelt and bitterly sentimental urban dramedy.  For most of its running time, the narrative is cleverly constructed, the dialogue has a sharp openness that other films wished they had, and the performances truly shine.  The film may lack some crucial credibility and interest at times, but it remains a highly entertaining, quirky, and thoughtful work that avoids frivolity.  I did not completely get what I wanted form this film, but then again, the characters in the stories did not really get what they wanted either.  Maybe that’s the decisive point of HAPPY ENDINGS.

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