Happy Endings (United States, 2005)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

Happy Endings is one of those ensemble films where several stories are told in parallel with occasional intersection points to keep them from being unconnected. Sometimes, as in the case of Crash, the approach works. Sometimes, as in the case of Happy Endings, there's something missing. Here, it's a sense of focus and direction. Happy Endings meanders, and by the time we're past the 90-minute mark, it starts to lose us. The film isn't engaging enough to hold the average viewer's attention for its full two-plus hour running length. Some of the characters are interesting, but their situations are not. And the title is apt - this movie takes about 25 minutes to wade through more endings than Return of the King.

In The Opposite of Sex, Don Roos displayed a talent for sharp, cynical observation. The story told in the film was ordinary, but Christina Ricci's running monologue was anything but that. With Bounce, Roos became more conventional, but still showed skill in setting up situations and developing characters. In Happy Endings, he reaches back toward The Opposite of Sex, but it's a misfire. Instead of having a continuing internal monologue, he relies on sarcastic captions. ("No one dies. This is a comedy…sort of," "Don't worry if you don't like her," etc.) Talk about taking a viewer out of the experience… There's nothing more jarring than to be watching a story unfold and have the picture shrink so that a couple of sentences can appear to illustrate the filmmaker's thoughts. At times, I felt like I was watching a DVD version of Happy Endings with the director's commentary turned on.

The film features three main stories. Maime (Lisa Kudrow), who is having an affair with masseuse Javier (Bobby Cannavale), is approached by would-be filmmaker Nicky (Jesse Bradford). He wants to make a documentary chronicling her meeting with the son she gave up for adoption 19 years ago. She demurs, but proposes an alternative: Nicky can tell Javier's tale - an illegal immigrant massage therapist who specializes in giving women "happy endings." Meanwhile, Maime's gay step-brother (who also is the father of her child), Charley (Steeve Coogan), believes that his boyfriend, Gil (David Sutcliffe), may be the father of the child of a lesbian couple, Pam (Laura Dern) and Diane (Sarah Clarke). After convincing Gil that they may have used his frozen sperm, Charley begins using sit-com like devices to uncover the truth. Finally, a homeless karaoke singer, Jude (Maggie Gyllenhaal), hooks up with Otis (Jason Ritter), the gay drummer in a garage rock band, and introduces him to heterosexual sex. Being a gold-digger at heart, she soon dumps him for his rich daddy, Frank (Tom Arnold), who is lonely and vulnerable.

The characters to watch are Maime, Jude, and Frank. These are the three that burrow beneath the superficial sheen that coats everything in Happy Endings. It's part writing and part acting. While many of the individuals populating Roos' film are dull and have little of interest to say or do, Maime, Jude, and Frank are developed on a different level. They are smartly written and expertly portrayed. Lisa Kudrow shows depth and range one would not suspect based on her sit-com background. (Although this is not the first time she has attacked a serious role. She was also good in Wonderland.) Maggie Gyllenhaal, who radiates charisma and sass, allows us to glimpse the pain and isolation beneath Jude's carefree exterior. And Tom Arnold shows that he can play something other than a loudmouthed boor.

One of the biggest problems I had with the film is the Charley/Gil/Pam/Diane plotline, which is farcical at best and stupid at worst. The premise is shaky, and the characters act in such unlikely ways that we can see the hand of the screenwriter pulling and pushing them. As effective as the scenes with Jude are, we're aware that it won't be long before the focus again shifts to Charley's issues. The longer Happy Endings ran, the more I found myself wishing Roos had elected to make this film only about Jude. (She's cut from the same cloth as Ricci's Deedee in The Opposite of Sex.) It would be fair to say that Gyllenhaal steals the show, even though she's only on-screen for about 40 minutes.

At times, Happy Endings wants to be funny, but it rarely provokes more than smiles and halfhearted chuckles. There are a number of amusing and/or ironic moments, but they don't amount to much. (The highlight is arguably the Jude/Otis sex scene.) Likewise, the drama is tepid. Sometimes it works, but more often it doesn't. This isn't a bad film - it can be watched without the viewer experiencing undue discomfort - but the pieces don't fit together and there's a sense that the connection between Maime's story and Frank's is contrived in order to provide a sense of closure. Roos should have spent more time on the beginning and middle, and less on the endings.

Happy Endings (United States, 2005)

Run Time: 2:08
U.S. Release Date: 2005-07-15
MPAA Rating: "R" (Profanity, Sexual Situations, Nudity, Drugs)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1