Too Much Information: Don Roos’ “Happy Endings”
by Michael Koresky, with responses by Kristi Mitsuda and Nicolas Rapold
[ indieWIRE’s weekly reviews are written by critics from Reverse Shot. ]
Overflowing with self-enshrining “acerbic wit,” Don Roos‘ curiously fondly remembered “The Opposite of Sex” ended up having all the edge of a dulled butter knife slathered with oleo. Ever the auto-critic, Roos constructs narratives of such dithery reflexivity that, on an almost moment to moment basis, you’re not allowed to find fault with whatever narrative leap, jarring tonal inconsistency, or dramatic cliché he throws at you; see, because he already knows he’s doing it. Through facile voice-over, smugly underlining inter- and sub-titles, and sarcastic reaction shots, Roos is consistently able to stick his viewers in remarkably constrictive bubbles in which criticism is precluded by auteurist self-defense. (Todd Solondz could learn some valuable time-saving tricks: why wait until your next film to vehemently safeguard your last?) Again, with his new release “Happy Endings,” Roos sticks to the same approach: Backstory is heaped onto the screen in large-fonted globs for us to absorb quickly, usually jokily contradicting the image it emblazons.
For instance, in the opening sequence, a woman is hit by a car and appears bloodied and unconscious, yet we read “She is not dead. No one dies in this movie. Not onscreen. It’s a comedy.” Forgive the core untruth in those last three words (the film isn’t particularly funny) and the gentle, ribbing Godardian joke inherent in these sorts of formal gambits: pre-emptive measures like these make viewers prisoners of each moment, telling us in sudden future projections or X-ray glimpses into character motivation that this or that will or will not end happily. It’s certainly a savvy move for a filmmaker unable to reconcile his twin tendencies to shock and then coddle audiences, a juxtaposition endemic to so many independent American filmmakers.
Yet once I clawed my way through the sloppy layers of smirky one-liners and self-satisfied glibness, I found that Roos’ mission is a worthwhile one, his formal strategies almost concealing a need to hammer out some weighty issues. Sure, as with any movie that appears to “deal with” the baffling “pansexuality” of “modern relationships,” there’s more than a touch of bogusness, although it’s far more palatable and less manipulatively designed than Chris Terrio‘s truly horrendous “Heights,” which revealed its homosexual characters by way of a “shocking” third-act twist. Acually, once “Happy Endings” puts aside its loop-de-loop narrative tangle, it’s a pretty nice anathema to Solondz’s abominable “Palindromes,” which tried to “balance” out the abortion debate by making every living thing a deplorable hypocrite. Here the question of choice is indicated in a trio of tales that all question and ennoble the notion of parenthood as both an essential right and a human privilege.
An interconnected, extended group of Angelenos (natch) deal with sexual and familial complications, constantly lying and manipulating each other in order to figure out what it means to be a mother, father, child, sibling, etc: Mamie (the splendid Lisa Kudrow, recalling her triumphantly dowdy Lucia from “Opposite of Sex”) is blackmailed by an asshole aspiring filmmaker (Jesse Bradford), who knows the identity of the son she gave up for adoption 20 years ago, so that he can make a film of their reunion and get into the AFI; Charley (a grimacing, hangdog Steve Coogan), Mamie’s stepbrother and the father of her lost child, is trying to uncover the truth about his boyfriend Gil’s (David Sutcliffe) sperm donation and their best friends’ baby, who looks suspiciously like Gil; and then there’s the only subplot that could stand as its own movie, the tangential tale of young Otis (Jason Ritter) a perpetually befuddled, sexually confused drummer in a band dubiously named Serpentine, who is seduced by Jude (Maggie Gyllenhaal) a greedy scheming bitch (a Roos specialty) who wants into his dad’s sweet palatial pad.
With so much narrative back-breaking, Roos finds it somewhat difficult to maintain equal interest for each thread. Rarely did I gladly anticipate returning to any one story: Bradford’s caricatured documentarian wannabe is alarmingly childish, unfunny, and half-baked, and Coogan’s dour nag is barely realized. The only truly shocking thing here is that the film’s saving grace comes in the form of Tom Arnold, an inspired choice for the part of Frank, Otis’ father.
Managing to avoid turning Frank into either a sad sack or an intolerant WASP monster, Arnold’s soft features and weary yet still punchy presence give the film a touch of unforced poignancy. When manipulated and humiliated by Gyllenhaal’s irredeemable Jude, Arnold manages to convey a graceful resilience that convinces us that he will ultimately regain his dignity.Which Roos makes sure to tell us by way of intertitles. But Arnold conveys a lifetime of heartache and regret in one longing glance; if Roos would trust his actors to tell their own tales rather than transform their livelihoods into little verbal asides and markers for Love in the Modern Age, then perhaps I would greater trust his intentions as a filmmaker. As is, the film is as earnest as the Billy Joel covers that pepper the soundtrack, but about as memorable as an original by Serpentine.
[ Michael Koresky is co-founder and editor of Reverse Shot, as well as an editor at Interview magazine and frequent contributor of Film Comment. ]
By Kristi Mitsuda
Somewhere between the delicious irreverence of his directorial debut “The Opposite of Sex” and the cliché-ridden crash landing of his sophomore effort “Bounce,” Roos’ latest situates itself maturely in the humdrum middle. Leaving the theater, disappointed, I found “Happy Endings” left me less with mental head room for active criticism than a shrugging acceptance of indifference; little about the film impressed itself deeply upon me. Opening with titles and split-screens hearkening back to the flashy flouting of cinematic storytelling conventions in “Sex,” Roos’ gimmickry here lacks comic punch or emotional payoff, and so registers as a novelistic trick meant to distract from dull proceedings.
As in his previous features, the writer-director’s multiple storylines dancingly circle around sex and love, only this time taken a step further to address a directly-related subject not often broached: deliberation of whether or not to parent a child, and the repercussions of that choice. Inclusive of the prickly issues surrounding procreation in these contentious times — adoption, abortion, surrogacy — for both straight and gay parents, single and coupled, the movie possesses a weighty potential and strives heartily for the profundity to which its ensemble epic design typically aspires; sadly, its rhythms feel off-kilter, and it never arrives at such transcendent cohesion.
What I love about the film begins and ends with the insouciant ease of Maggie Gyllenhaal, who makes fresh and multidimensional a character who would’ve otherwise been merely a gold-digging harpy. Roos attains the level of resonance he seeks when she sings: The imperfect rawness of her voice carries an aching honesty and vulnerability strikingly absent in her interactions with people. Her last number, a plaintive cover of Billy Joel’s “Just the Way You Are,” reaches the core of something beautiful and moving. Would that the rest of “Happy Endings” could’ve attained those lofty heights.
[ Kristi Mitsuda is a Reverse Shot staff writer and maintains the blog artflickchick. ]
By Nicolas Rapold
Hope or despair? It is difficult to know how to take Don Roos’ “Happy Endings,” but we’ll lay the question aside for a paragraph. For it is also difficult to consider the film apart from Roos’ debut, “The Opposite of Sex” — and either film apart from its political moment. The key technical decision: Omniscient split-screen titles in “Happy Endings” have replaced the self-conscious voice-over of “The Opposite of Sex,” and this change seems to reflect our shifted political and social landscape. A textbook unreliable narrator, Dedee of “The Opposite of Sex” was both ringmaster and freakshow; she made possible that film’s airing of challenging sexual issues, which any threatened viewers could always explain away as part of her pervasive tabloid-creature bathos. 1998, when that film was released, was similarly one long festival of hiding in plain sight — the year of a president, horny and stupid, falling prey to a Congress tumescent from the atavistic combo of political aggression and Puritanical righteousness. But didn’t we feel a little proud when polls suggested that people cared quite a bit less than politicians about the president’s sexual practices? We were Dedee for a moment there, able to see through the living satire.
Which brings us to Roos’ new narration, most unlike the cynical drama queen Dedee — instead, savvy, catty, but with a warmly universal sympathy. In “Happy Endings” we seem to move through a world where someone, this greater authorial being that Roos conjures, knows the real score and what really matters and what love is. But this promise revives that opening question of hope and despair. Roos’ wittily expressed compassion is so tempting — with its authoritative delivery through title cards, lining a divinely complex screenplay — that one can forget the despair of this 2005 fiction’s real-world counterpart polls: the new hiding-in-plain-sight of today’s sex and politics, namely, the huge proportions of America that have apparently always wanted to restrict marriage or legal rights between some citizens.
This context is necessary because it tints Roos’ picture with a willful wishfulness instead of the early critical labels of a “Love Actually” sentimentality. It’s a melancholy that is born out by the mystifying final scene, a set of reunions which seem to occur on a plane of ambiguous realism distinct from what comes before and which invite misinterpretation. To this point, Roos has worked purposefully (and effectively) with soap-opera passions — adultery, custody battles, mysterious pasts. It is a strategy that, though itself a positive cathartic example, also recalls the transparent manipulation of emotion in recent politics, which is so obvious and mappable and yet so daunting (and to often shadowy purposes). But with the gesture of the final scene, after Roos has ostensibly untangled the strands of his complex plot, so much seems suddenly unclear, even unreal. It is a flashily political film’s most eloquent evocation yet of the present moment of foreboding uncertainty for the politics of sexuality in America.
[ Nicolas Rapold is a Reverse Shot staff writer and the assistant editor of Film Comment. ]