Movie review: 'Happy Endings'

Minority GroupsEntertainmentMoviesMaggie GyllenhaalLifestyle and LeisureBobby Cannavale

2½ stars (out of four)

"Happy Endings" opens with Lisa Kudrow running wildly, limbs akimbo, down a quiet suburban street, a wooded hill and smack into an oncoming car. And you think, OK, the title's ironic.

But writer/director Don Roos, a clever and sincere filmmaker, departs from the winky norm with refreshing optimism, rooting for his damaged characters' eventual happiness. The running scene is actually a false start, a moment that we'll see again toward the end of the film after Roos ("The Opposite of Sex") hits the rewind button and shows us what leads Kudrow's character to such a mad dash.

"Happy Endings" is a multi-story, orbiting affair with Kudrow's Mamie at its center. As a teenager, Mamie slept with stepbrother Charley, got pregnant, pretended to have an abortion and gave the baby up for adoption. Now an abortion counselor—go figure—Mamie is approached by greasy twentysomething Nicky (Jesse Bradford), who promises to introduce Mamie to her long-lost son if he can film their reunion for his film school application.

Charley (Steve Coogan) grows up to inherit his family's restaurant chain and now runs the only surviving outpost. He lives with lover Gil (David Sutcliffe) and becomes convinced that their best friends, lesbian couple Pam and Diane (Laura Dern and Sarah Clarke), stole Gil's sperm to make a baby.

Back to Mamie: Only half manipulated, Mamie promises Nicky an even better documentary subject—her boyfriend Javier (Bobby Cannavale)—in return for the skinny on her son. Javier is in truth a massage therapist (OK, Roos winks a little with his title) but for Nicky, he is an immigrant sex worker.

Back to Charley: While running karaoke night at Charley's restaurant, closeted homosexual Otis (Jason Ritter) meets freeloader Jude (Maggie Gyllenhaal), invites her to sing in his band and tries very hard not to be gay with her. Doesn't really work, and soon Jude moves to Otis' father Frank (Tom Arnold), a rich widower with a lot of love—and jewelry—to give.

Roos isn't sure you'll follow all this, so he intermittently runs captions along the side of his frames, telling us what Mamie's really thinking or exposing Nicky's true intentions. Many are flip and funny, but Roos relies on the text too much, forgetting what I'm sure Nicky will learn on his first day of film school: Show, don't tell.

The captions are only the symptom of a larger problem: too many secrets, too little time.

Roos does an admirable job balancing the tragedy and comedy, but he bogs down every character with so much baggage that it's impossible to render them honestly without the captions. Catch 22, my loves.

Kudrow is the most glaring example of this dilemma. In her HBO meta-spoof "The Comeback," Kudrow plays with insecurity and ego to great aplomb, but here Mamie's neuroses and buried torment look a lot like acting, with Kudrow trademarks—the pursed lips, the squinty eyes—on display.

But the other performances, across the board, are spot-on. Gyllenhaal in particular nails Jude's faux apathy, confused joie de vivre and misplaced anger—and sings a chilling, moving rendition of Billy Joel's "Honesty." Cannavale and Coogan steal scenes but the big surprise is a loveable Arnold.

I hate when critics say this, but I enjoyed "Happy Endings" more upon second viewing, when I could ignore Roos' commentary and contrived intersections and relish in Gyllenhaal's voice, Cannavale's machismo and Roos' quaint but feel-good moral: Go ahead and run like a madwoman—happiness will wait for you to find it.

abenedikt@tribune.com

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'Happy Endings'

Written and directed by Don Roos; photographed by Clark Mathis; edited by David Codron; production designed by Richard Sherman; produced by Holly Wiersma and Michael Paseornek. A Lions Gate Films release; opens Friday. Running time: 2:10. MPAA rating: R (sexual content, language and some drug use).

Mamie - Lisa Kudrow

Javier - Bobby Cannavale

Jude - Maggie Gyllenhaal

Charley - Steve Coogan

Gil - David Sutcliffe

Pam - Laura Dern

Diane - Sarah Clarke

Otis - Jason Ritter

Frank - Tom Arnold

Nicky - Jesse Bradford

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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Minority GroupsEntertainmentMoviesMaggie GyllenhaalLifestyle and LeisureBobby Cannavale
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