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Review: Andie MacDowell brings signature charm to the modest but insightful ‘My Happy Ending’

Two women, one connected to an IV drip, face each other.
Tamsin Greig, left, and Andie MacDowell in “My Happy Ending.”
(Roadside Attractions)
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The beguiling Andie MacDowell, a leading lady in films such as “Groundhog Day” and “Four Weddings and a Funeral,” has taken on more supporting roles in recent years, from “Ready or Not” and “Magic Mike XXL” to the Netflix series “Maid,” opposite her daughter, Margaret Qualley. While she’s always memorable, it’s nice to see her step into a leading role once again (and a non-romantic one at that) with “My Happy Ending,” a heartfelt drama directed by Tal Granit and Sharon Maymon.

Written by Rona Tamir, “My Happy Ending” is based on a play by Anat Gov. The events unfold over several hours in a single setting, exposing the story’s theatrical roots, but Granit and Maymon add a touch of magical realism to liberate the film’s cinematic potential.

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MacDowell stars as Julia Roth, an American mega-star who travels to a small British clinic for chemotherapy. The name, her apparent star caliber and the many comments about her fabulous hair make this fictional Julia seem a lot like Julia Roberts, and coupled with the English setting, it calls to mind another film about a movie star trying to go unnoticed — “Notting Hill.”

Our Julia’s star is on the wane, having just endured a West End flop, and she’s attempting to go incognito at the chemo clinic. She hasn’t told anyone, including her manager or daughter, about her diagnosis of colon cancer, and she thinks she can muscle through a few rounds of chemo on her own, without being discovered. Privacy proves to be a challenge at the clinic, which doesn’t have private rooms, only curtained-off areas, but it turns out that the lack of secrecy is exactly what Julia needs to tackle this moment.

Just across the curtain are three women: the wacky, wig-swapping Mikey (Sally Phillips), a wise, curmudgeonly older woman, Judy (Miriam Margolyes) and a quiet but busy young mother, Imaan (Rakhee Thakrar). After a few awkward exchanges in which it becomes clear that every conversation can be overheard in the room (often used to comedic effect), Julia surrenders to her surroundings and finds comfort in these women, who understand, better than she does, the challenges that she’s facing.

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The premise of “My Happy Ending” is somewhat slight, but there’s nothing insubstantial about a woman coming to a profound realization about her life thanks to a surprising encounter with unexpected new allies. MacDowell brings her signature soulful charm to the role of Julia, who starts out as guarded and fearful, and blossoms into a powerful advocate for herself. Plus, casting Phillips, whom you’ll recognize as one of Bridget Jones’ best friends, is like a cinematic cheat code — her comic energy is natural and undeniable, but here she is allowed to color in all the shades of the emotional rainbow, from euphoria to regret.

Granit and Maymon allow the characters, and the audience, to escape the clinic through the women’s shared guided visualizations, which they call holidays, escapist fantasies to an island rainforest, Burning Man or just back home. Julia’s holidays are scattered, but as she homes in on what would make her happy, not impressing the other women or pleasing her strident longtime friend and manager, Nancy (Tamsin Greig), it helps her to understand what she wants to do in the face of such a daunting diagnosis. The support of the other women allows her to speak her truth, and her choice, clearly to both Nancy and to her doctor (Tom Cullen).

“My Happy Ending” may at times feel modest, but the lessons imparted are far from disposable, including the idea that life is too short to deny oneself treats or wear uncomfortable shoes. Those may be surface level messages, but the conversations about our choices in life — or death — are deep and resonant. A happy ending doesn’t always have to look the same for everyone; each one is different and deeply personal.

Katie Walsh is a Tribune News Service film critic.

'My Happy Ending'

Rated: R, for language and brief drug use
Running time: 1 hour, 29 minutes
Playing: Starts Feb. 24 in general release

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