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 counselorgo figureMamie 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 subjecther 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 loveand jewelryto 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 trademarksthe pursed lips, the squinty eyeson 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 angerand 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 madwomanhappiness will wait for you to find it.
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 BradfordCopyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times