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‘Happily’ never after

March 22, 2021
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Most of the time, the media we consume – movies, books, TV, music – fits comfortably within the confines of description. That is, we can pretty easily define what kind of film or book or show or song we’re experiencing; even the stuff built on genre cross-pollination can be described reasonably succinctly.

Occasionally, though, we get something that doesn’t quite fit into one or two categories. Something that is many different things at once while also being essentially its own thing.

“Happily,” written and directed by BenDavid Grabinski, checks a LOT of different genre boxes, but does so in a way that is appealingly messy. There’s a fundamental shagginess to the film, born of the filmmaker’s clear desire to take a kitchen sink approach to tone and type. And the film really does have it all – romance and dark comedy and speculative undertones and relationship drama – but in the course of doing so, it sometimes loses its way.

That said, we’ve got a dynamite cast, some killer aesthetic choices and visual styling and an obvious willingness to let things get weird. It’s a film where you might THINK you know what you’re getting into, but you don’t. Not really. And that’s (mostly) a good thing.

Tom (Joel McHale, “Becky”) and Janet (Kerry Bishe, TV’s “Penny Dreadful: City of Angels”) have a wonderful relationship. Even after 14 years of marriage, they still deeply love and respect one another. They’re even still hot for each other, with a pronounced inability to keep their hands off one another, even in public.

And their friends hate it.

They hate it so much, in fact, that two of those friends – the less-happily-married couple Karen (Natalie Zea, TV’s “The Unicorn”) and Val (Paul Scheer, TV’s “Black Monday”) – invite Tom and Janet to dinner for the express purpose of uninviting them from a getaway weekend.

Things get even weirder when a mysterious man (Stephen Root, “Home”) turns up at Tom and Janet’s door, spouting some pretty bizarre claims – claims that ultimately wind up taking a dark turn. The strangeness only increases when they receive a phone call in the aftermath, reinviting them to the getaway at a mysterious high-tech mansion.

Tom and Janet decide to go. Joining them and Val and Karen are three other couples: Patricia (Natalie Morales, “Language Lessons”) and Donald (Jon Daly, TV’s “Big Mouth”); Maude (Kirby Howell-Baptiste, TV’s “Infinity Train”) and Carla (Shannon Woodward, “Ode to Joy”); and Richard (Breckin Meyer, “Unpregnant”) and Gretel (Charlyne Yi, “Trolls World Tour”).

As the group spends time together and the evening unfolds, the circumstances only grow stranger, with all manner of tensions – some overt, others more subtle – begin to play out. The booze flows … and so does the truth. It’s not long before it becomes clear that something is amiss, leaving Tom and Janet and the rest to figure out just what exactly is happening – and why.

Look, I recognize that the previous synopsis reads a little vague. That’s by design – there are a lot of things that happen over the course of this film that will be far more effective if you’re not anticipating them. Suffice it to say that there are a lot of surprises along the way, alterations in tone and style and expectation. Honestly, in those terms, “Happily” is one of the more fluid films I’ve watched in some time; you’re just never sure where the narrative is going to lead moment to moment.

As you might imagine, this leads to a film that is difficult to describe. Think “The Big Chill” meets “The Twilight Zone” and you’re in the neighborhood, though even that oversimplifies things a bit. And that complexity might be the movie’s biggest issue – there’s so much going on that “Happily” never quite settles on what it wants to be, leaving us with a bit of a disconnect.

Tonal and stylistic muddiness aside, there’s plenty to like about “Happily.” It’s an aesthetically sharp film, with Grabinski finding ways to clearly delineate his narrative choices through visual presentation – not easy to do when you’re bouncing all over the place. But we get it all – hipster party lighting, cold screen surveillance, surreal dream sequences – all of it folded together in a manner that somehow maintains coherence. It’s also quite funny, albeit in an unabashedly dark way, having some fun with the interpersonal toxicity that can be born of envy and misunderstanding.

As for the cast, it’s a phenomenally talented assemblage, though not all of them get as much to do as we might like. McHale and Bishe are great as Tom and Janet, their chemistry such that it’s easy to buy them as a still-starry-eyed couple. The rest of the characters are a bit ill-formed (likely deliberately, though that tactic’s relative effectiveness is arguable), leaving them somewhat flat. Most of them are defined by a characteristic or two, though they’re all so talented that they manage to make it work more often than not. Ultimately, it’s just a lot of not-nice people being not-nice to each other.

The film takes a few extremely abrupt and unexpected turns over the course of its runtime, and if we’re being honest, not all of them fully make sense. Strangeness piles on top of strangeness to the point where you’re not entirely certain how it all fits together; if you start pulling at threads, the whole thing unravels.

“Happily” is an uneven film, one whose seams show more clearly the closer you examine it – a movie made up of quality parts that never quite fit together properly, though the sum of those parts is still worth experiencing. In truth, that unevenness is part of its charm, along with some undeniably talented performers and an eye for varied aesthetics. Imperfect, yes, but still worthwhile.

[3.5 out of 5]

Last modified on Monday, 22 March 2021 11:27

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