Bad movies are a dime a dozen, but the truly pitiable ones are few and far between. Oliver Thompson’s spellbindingly awful “Welcome to Happiness” isn’t much worse than most first features — and, in some respects, it’s far more ambitious — but this star-studded mess is the rare film that confronts you with the helplessness of watching someone self-sabotage their own work. Unfocused and unformed in the way that only a rookie effort can be, Thompson’s debut is only enjoyable in fits and starts, but most of it is touched with a guilelessness that makes it difficult to hate.
Things begin with promise, as the intriguingly enigmatic opening scene sets the stage for a movie we’ll never get to see. Woody, a frustrated children’s lit author, played by “Veronica Mars” alum Kyle Gallner, is twiddling his thumbs at home when a young woman he’s never met before knocks on his door. He welcomes the stranger into his apartment as though he had been expecting her, puts a small rock in her hands, and begins to ask her a series of invasively personal questions. Eventually — long after the girl has begun to sob — Woody leads her into his closet, and shows her a small door in the floor. He isn’t sure what’s on the other side, but he assures his guest that what she finds there will change her life for the better.
After just a few minutes, “Welcome to Happiness” already has the makings of a neat riff on the wish-fulfillment fictions of Rod Serling or Richard Matheson. The jerky use of Wes Anderson whip-pans and the poorly mixed (and even more poorly placed) original music are worrying, but the premise overpowers such elements. And then, for reasons that only Thompson may ever fully understand, the film carpet-bombs its potential with extreme prejudice.
Instead of exploring the story of a guy who serves as the reluctant gatekeeper to an extraordinary world, Thompson all but ditches his protagonist for a hodgepodge of exasperating characters, pinging around from one to the next without rhyme or reason. It quickly becomes clear that Thompson’s chief source of inspiration isn’t one of the great writers of speculative fiction, but rather the TV show “Lost,” and he’s trying to cram a whole season of it into less than two hours. But where “Lost” was anchored to that mysterious island, “Welcome to Happiness” is absent any such foundation. So — for example — when it abruptly cuts to a scene in which Big Head from “Silicon Valley” (née Josh Brener, delivering a genuinely heartfelt performance) has a jittery conversation about baseball cards with a suicidal dolt (Brendan Sexton III), you can’t help but wonder who the hell these people are or why you should care. In a vivid fantasy like “Cloud Atlas,” such narrative leaps and lingering questions might feel expressive of a greater design, but in a movie that often feels like a very stoned “Garden State,” not so much.
Things spark to life whenever the film checks in on Woody, particularly as he begins to flirt with the new girl in his apartment complex (Olivia Thirlby, bringing an effortless charm to a dead end role). How do you tell your crush that random people sometimes swing by because there’s a portal to another dimension in your closet? It’s a rhetorical question, but rest assured that Woody eventually arrives at the worst possible answer. Before we get there, of course, we have to spend some time with a wizened landlord (played by Nick Offerman, natch), a manic cat art enthusiast (a helpless Keegan-Michael Key) and Lillian, his pixie-like partner in bizarro wish-fulfillment (Molly C. Quinn). Yes, it’s a strong cast, but the recognizability of these actors only calls attention to the amateurishness of the film around them — you can’t help but wonder how they wound up here, and grow anxious for them to return somewhere else.
Individual scenes are a hodgepodge of disparate tones, wild comic zaniness colliding with inert drama as Thompson fails to meld magical-realism with genuine human pathos. At one point, Lillian leads Ripley up a flight of stairs — there’s no suspense here, just two strangers walking up a staircase — and Thompson shoots the sequence in thudding slow-motion so that he can squeeze in more of the cheesy folk tunes that songwriter Peter LeClair wrote for the film. It’s a head-scratching creative choice, but one that’s typical of a movie in which the maddeningly overbearing music is often at war with whatever’s happening on screen.
But that business on the staircase is most telling because it crystallizes the impression that Thompson is just stalling for time, and that theory only grows more convincing as the story twirls towards its asinine point. Fortunately, you’ll know the exact moment that it gets there, as one character has the kindness to put it into plain English: “Everything happens for a reason.” A tough break for anyone who likes thinking or satisfying dramatic resolutions. Without revealing the particulars, Woody figures out that his clients are effectively being given the chance to undo a terrible mistake, only to learn that it’s better to think on the present than it is to dwell on the past. Hopefully, Thompson will heed his own advice, learning from his mistakes and adjusting his posture for the next time he decides to tilt at windmills.
A choppy sea of needlessly ruinous creative choices, “Welcome to Happiness” is why we have screenwriting labs. It’s why people have friends and family screenings. It’s why filmmakers have collaborators who they can trust, and to whom they’re willing to listen. This movie is an advertisement for film school — unless Thompson went to film school, in which case this movie is a cautionary tale about film school. Watching a bad movie can be fun, but watching something like this is like sitting in the front row as your kid forgets their lines during the school play. It’s not the worst film of the year, but it might be the most unfortunate. And yet, perhaps something good will come of it. After all, everything happens for a reason.
“Welcome to Happiness” opens in theaters and on VOD on Friday.