Film Review – Another Happy Day
If you are the sort of person who sees a film title like Another Happy Day and hopes it’s trying to be ironic, you are in luck with Sam Levinson’s new film. It doesn’t seem there’s been a happy day in a long while with this lot of characters, gathering for a long weekend of sniping at each other over little things, ignoring real issues, occasional bouts of violence, and, oh yeah, celebrating a marriage. Happy days, indeed.
Leading a very impressive cast for a writer/director’s first film (I am assuming it helps in procuring such a cast when your dad is Barry Levinson), Ellen Barkin plays Lynn, a mother of a daughter and three sons, whose oldest boy, Dylan, is the one getting married. He’s the only typically well-adjusted one in the bunch, which is exactly why we see so little of him in the film. Dylan is from Lynn’s first marriage, to Paul (Thomas Hayden Church), which ended poorly and with suspicions of physical abuse on his end. Paul is remarried to Patty (Demi Moore), and they have daughters of their own, who are of as little significance as Dylan. Lynn’s and Paul’s daughter, Alice (Kate Bosworth), lived with Lynn after the divorce while Dylan went with Paul, and Alice and Paul haven’t spoken in many years. Alice cuts herself. So, we’ll be seeing more of her.
But we’re just getting started. From her second marriage to Lee (Jeffrey DeMunn), Lynn has a 17-year-old son, Elliott (Ezra Miller), who has already been to rehab four times and has remarkably lovely skin for a junkie. Her youngest child is Ben (Daniel Yelsky), who has been diagnosed with mild Asperger’s. She has two shrill, oblivious sisters (Siobhan Fallon; Diana Scarwid) with drunk, cackling husbands. Her mom (Ellen Burstyn) just wants everyone to get along, and contributes to this goal by being judgmental and unforgiving. Her dad (George Kennedy) is in failing health and is the sort of man who reacts to a confession from Paul that yes, he did hit Lynn, by noting that it must have been hard for Paul to get that off his chest.
Okay. There’s eccentric, and then there’s unpleasant. When the only character in your movie I might actually want to spend any time with is the mild-mannered twelve-year-old, it’s gonna be a long two hours. The other issue is that throwing all of these unpleasant people together does not a plot make. The supposed main storyline (I think it is the supposed main storyline) is that Lynn wants to sort some things out with Paul before Alice arrives, because Alice hasn’t been doing well and seeing Paul will be traumatic for her. We get a lot of conversation to this end, but when it seems time for something to really happen, not much does. This ends up being the case with multiple subplots, as well.
The main thing holding the film together is Barkin. She does a solid job with the role that she’s given, and it’s great to see her at the center of a cast, when she’s been so underused throughout her career. We don’t know much about Lynn as a person, only the laundry list of her familial problems, but Barkin gives us the depth that might not have been on the page. We root for her even when we wish she’d act differently in the pursuit of facing her problems, and realize she’s doing her best even as nothing she does seems to make any progress. Still, it’s that lack of progress that is the film’s greatest flaw, and not one that even the most valiant performance can overcome. We’re presented with a lot of complicated relationships, and in the end, all of these relationships stay complicated in the exact same ways they started. It seems that the next time the family is forced to gather, the same conversations will happen all over again. So what, then, was the point of listening to any of them in the first place?
Beyond the unpleasant characters and the treading water vibe, the tone of the film is inconsistent. There’s plenty of drama and discontent, but then there are weird moments that veer into black comedy territory, with dialogue and characterizations edging on over the top absurdity. This feels purposeful, but rarely works. The only character who manages to toe the line is Elliott, the wise-cracking drug fiend. Ezra Miller plays the asshole troubled teen very well, and this gives me faith that I’ll be impressed when I see him play a much, much more troubled teen (to put it lightly) in the title role of We Need to Talk About Kevin when it is released. If the roles keep coming his way, he has a real future.
Despite the praise I can give to some of the actors, solid acting can’t overcome a lackluster script. I was very surprised to learn that this script won a screenwriting award at this year’s Sundance Film Festival; perhaps others will see something in the writing that I didn’t. The film begins its run at SIFF Cinema at the Uptown in Seattle today.
Final Grade: C-