Thursday, August 19, 2010


We believe in Happy Endings

By Ivan G. Shreve, Jr.
In 1998, after reading many positive reviews of writer-director Don Roos’ The Opposite of Sex, I purchased a VHS copy of the movie on a whim and shoved it into the player for a look-see. Though I think it was slightly overrated by quite a few critics (my main peeve of the film is that the ending doesn’t completely jibe with what took place before it) it was both a worthwhile buy and an entertaining watch; a jet black comedy starring Christina Ricci as a young nymphet who wreaks havoc for her half-brother (Martin Donovan) and his acquaintances in a small, conservative Indiana town.

Roos got his big break as a television scribe for many prime time dramatic series including Hart to Hart, Paper Dolls, The Colbys and Nightingales — and this background is evident in Sex, with Ricci’a character behaving in the manner of a teenage Alexis Colby (the role played on Dynasty by Joan Collins). He has a definite feel for strong female characters, as witnessed by his contributions to films such as Love Field (1992), Single White Female (1992), Boys on the Side (1995) and Diabolique (1996). Happily, the tradition of meaty, well-written parts for actresses continues in a smart, witty film I thought even better than Sex (if you’ll pardon the pun): 2005’s Happy Endings.

Happy Endings — a euphemism for any sexual release that occurs during a massage — tells three stories that in the tradition of multiple narratives interweave with one another throughout the film. The first tale belongs to Mamie (Lisa Kudrow), an abortion clinic counselor dating a Latino masseuse (Bobby Cannavale) who finds that a secret she’s kept under lock and key (she was supposed to abort the pregnancy that resulted from she and her stepbrother Charley’s [Steve Coogan] foray into losing their virginity, but gave the child up for adoption instead) is about to be exposed by an aspiring documentary filmmaker named Nicky (Jesse Bradford). Nicky knows the identity of Mamie’s son and offers to make available this information under the proviso that she agree to be the subject of a documentary he wants to make and submit to the American Film Institute for a student grant. Mamie and her boyfriend, Javier, have an alternate plan — they will win Nicky’s confidence by distracting him with another subject for his film…namely Javier himself.

Story No. 2 involves stepbrother Charley, who, since his assignation with Mamie has come out of the closet and enjoys a long-standing relationship with Gil (David Sutcliffe) and friendship with Gil’s best high school chum Ruth (Laura Dern) and her lover, Diane (Sarah Clarke). Ruth and Diane have a young son named Max — and at the time they were trying to conceive, they asked Gil to…well, donate to the cause…but ultimately went to a sperm bank for the father. Charley’s not so certain this is the case, however — and is obsessed with the speculation that Max just may be Gil’s son.

The third tale involves a triangle between Otis (Jason Ritter), a sexually confused youngster who works in Charley’s restaurant and moonlights in a band, a female hustler named Jude (Maggie Gyllenhaal) and Otis’ father Frank (Tom Arnold). Otis has talked Jude into replacing the singer in the band (who’s doing a stint in rehab) after hearing her give out at a karaoke night and she makes herself at home at Casa del Otis — first by helping the young man lose his virginity (in a parallel of the Mamie-Charley tryst) and then moving into the pool house at father Frank’s estate. She pretends to be Otis’ girlfriend (even though Otis is gay) in order to square things between Otis and his father…but with the passage of time, she finds herself falling for the older man and, as the saying goes, the wacky complications ensue.

Although Roos’ original idea for Endings was to tell three stories about three sisters, the unchanging constant in the film’s equation was actress Kudrow, whom Roos had worked with previously in Sex (she gets most of that film’s best lines and pretty much walks off with the movie tucked under the arm). Anyone who’s only familiar with her flaky turn as Friends’ Phoebe will be genuinely surprised by her first-rate emoting as Mamie in Endings — she breathes life into a character who wins the sympathy of the audience despite her unpleasant qualities. (An onscreen title card explains Mamie’s cruelty by saying: “Don’t worry if you don’t like her — her ex-husband was a gambler, so maybe that accounts for a lot.” By the end of the film, however, if Mamie’s situation doesn’t cause you wipe away a tear then you are clearly a robot, my friend.) Mamie is an archetypal Roos creation; in fact, nearly all of the characters in his movies are unattractive people — not in a hunchbacked, dueling-scar-on-the-cheek sense but people who perform acts of ugliness despite being fundamentally decent (if incredibly flawed) human beings. And yet, after experiencing two hours of nasty goings-on with the individuals involved, the film lives up to its title and allows its protagonists the assurance that everything comes out in the wash.

In Sex, Roos used Ricci’s character as the on-screen narrator, a technique he abandons here in favor of those onscreen title cards which in many ways function as an additional participant in the film’s narrative (Roos, in an interview, compares it to Puck from A Midsummer Night's Dream). While a few critics thought this a bit self-indulgent, I found myself in favor of it — particularly because the titles provide information to which the audience is not privy and it eliminates unnecessary and awkward dialogue exchanges. A good example occurs toward the end of the film, when Mamie and Charley have arranged a meeting with their son (Eric Jungmann). The card explains that although they didn’t get an invite to his wedding, they did get to see their grandchildren via e-mailed photos…which eventually come to a stop. Tom, the title card explains, married a woman who’s “much like the rest of us…nothing but opinions.”

The ensemble cast in Endings performs at the peak of their powers, particularly Kudrow and Coogan, who manage to instill likability into characters whose actions result in a great many hurt feelings and broken relationships. My best friend from high school are still engaged in spirited debate about Gyllenhaal — she doesn’t care for Mags (though she admits she may have not seen much of her work, save for Secretary and The Dark Knight) but I’m one of her biggest fans; her character of Jude probably behaves the worst of the lot (which may be why Roos allows her to disappear at the end save for a fantasy musical number) and yet is still undeniably appealing…though again, that may be my admittedly biased admiration for Gyllenhaal’s work. (Gwyneth Paltrow, who starred in Roos’ 2000 film Bounce, had originally been slated to play the part of Jude.) For me, the biggest surprise in the film is the finely subtle accomplishment of comic actor Tom Arnold — who’s normally the cinematic equivalent of nails-on-a-blackboard, but he really shines here. (If I have any nitpicks with the ensemble it's that Laura Dern’s part is woefully underwritten, a crime for such an amazingly gifted actress.)

Since the release of Happy Endings, Roos has written and directed Love and Other Impossible Pursuits (2009), a comedy-drama that re-teams him with Kudrow and also includes Natalie Portman and Lauren Ambrose in the cast. (Roos and Kudrow also collaborated on the online sitcom Web Therapy.) With the batting average that he’s maintained with Sex and Endings, I’m anticipating enjoying the film should it come my way in the near future.


Ivan G. Shreve, Jr. blogs at Thrilling Days of Yesteryear, and the fact that he’s just now gotten around to seeing Happy Endings five years after its release is a testament to his obsession with the movies, television and radio of the past.

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I wasn't crazy about The Opposite of Sex, but I'm not surprised that Roos keeps going back to Kudrow because I thought she was by far the best thing in that movie.
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