Following writer-director Michael Almereyda's remarkable "Hamlet" two years ago, "Happy Here and Now" is an affirmation of something Almereyda has been slowly building toward -- a cinematic malleability that allows a single film to seem at once brazenly experimental in content and form, yet deeply indebted to narrative and plot.

Following writer-director Michael Almereyda’s remarkable “Hamlet” two years ago, “Happy Here and Now” is an affirmation of something Almereyda has been slowly building toward — a cinematic malleability that allows a single film to seem at once brazenly experimental in content and form, yet deeply indebted to narrative and plot. And it is (as was “Hamlet”) an uncanny pulse-taking of our technology-saturated times, where identity has become not just a salable commodity but a mass-marketed one. This singular, raggedly beautiful film, which also manages to fit concerns about detective noir, Blaise Pascal’s “Pensees” and the blues music of the late Ernie K. Doe into its svelte 89-minute form, isn’t for everyone. It seems certain to confound as many viewers as it will inspire. But pic will foster a core critical contingent that will find itself transfixed and, ultimately, deeply moved by the film’s ravishing power, and which will in turn generate a highly interested, if limited, specialty audience.

Pic begins with the director’s best use yet of his beloved Pixelvision photography, with the slightly blurred, black-and-white aesthetic creating the world of a virtual-reality Internet chatroom, wherein the users can project whatever image of themselves they desire via a series of electrodes attached to their bodies.

The time is the near future, and the conversation taking place, between a young man (Karl Geary) and woman (Shalom Harlow), is about identity and the way in which the online world might serve as a portal into alternate realities. In fact, this very conversation may not be happening at all, or at least not happening between the two people whose faces are projected on the screen.

The woman, whose name is Muriel, has disappeared, and her sister, Amelia (Liane Balaban), has gone to New Orleans to find her. Helping Amelia is an over-the-hill private eye (Clarence Williams III). Their only clues are the few fragments that remain on her sister’s wiped-clean hard drive of mysterious chat sessions with a space cowboy who calls himself Eddie Mars.

Almereyda’s primary concern here is identity (or, more specifically, the notion of self), but this isn’t about the evils of the Internet. Rather, Almereyda takes a look at the fundamentally human predicament happening at the dawn of the 21st century, when so much about the universe and its infinite mysteries has been revealed and, yet, people are so deeply unsatisfied. There is a sense that happiness is always fleeting, now and then, here and everywhere.

Film also deals with the isolation of our everyday lives so that we might disappear online, get swallowed up by that great information superhighway, and no one would know. (The film is at its most sardonic when it entertains the notion that Muriel may indeed have vanished into her computer.)

But, there’s a glimmer of hope in the film. “Happy Here and Now” concerns a disappearance, yes, but it is also a film about reappearance, re-emergence, rebirth.

As Amelia retraces her sister’s footsteps, “Happy Here and Now” divides into two distinct halves. There are the Pixelvision chat sessions and the color, 35mm segments (set in the “real world”) that concern, among other things, a solemn firefighter named Tom, recovering from the accidental death of a co-worker. Though Tom is played by the same actor — Almereyda veteran Karl Geary — who appears as Eddie in the Pixelvision sequences, the “real” Eddie is actually Tom’s brother (played by David Arquette in his best-ever performance), who merely projects himself as Tom when he chats with Muriel and Amelia. (Likewise, there is a scene in which the detective projects himself as Amelia, unbeknownst to Eddie.)

The final third of “Happy Here and Now” begins with an exhilarating convergence. Eddie sets out to make a film for the Internet, while Amelia and the detective close in on Eddie, certain that he has information about Muriel. There is then a scene in which Amelia falls asleep at the computer, virtual-reality electrodes still attached, and a dream ensues — a Pixelvision and Super 8 dream in which Amelia is the costumed heroine of a Feuillade-like adventure, that is perhaps the most sumptuous scene Almereyda has ever shot.

It is the companion to the “Mousetrap” sequence in “Hamlet” — a dizzyingly personal movie-within-a-movie that reimagines, in gloriously abstract terms, the events we have just witnessed. For “Happy Here and Now” is, above all, a film about different ways of seeing, from its one-eye-blind firefighter’s widow (Gloria Reuben) to the literal and figurative visionaries who populate Eddie Mars’ mythical monologues.

Almereyda has a marvelously alien way of staging action; we seem to be floating above everything, in a trance. This isn’t the tidiest of pictures — Almereyda lets certain characters and story threads dangle. (Ally Sheedy in particular has almost nothing to do as Muriel and Amelia’s spacey aunt.) But mostly there’s a piquancy to that fragmentation.

There are remarkable performances here, particularly by Geary in a challenging dual role. One of the film’s most distinctive effects is its ability to convince viewers that when they see Geary online they are actually seeing Arquette. Pic is well shot, in lustrous saturated colors, by Jonathan Herron, and soundtrack boasts a near-embarrassment of diverse musical riches.

Happy Here and Now

Production

An IFC Prods. presentation of a Keep Your Head production. (International sales: Cinetic Media, New York.) Produced by Anthony Katagas, Callum Greene. Executive producers, Jonathan Sehring, Caroline Kaplan, Holly Becker, John Sloss. Directed, written by Michael Almereyda.

Crew

Camera (DuArt color), Jonathan Herron; editor, Kristina Boden; music, David Julyan; music supervisor, Tracy McKnight; production designer, Leonard Spears; art director, Dan Adams; costume designers, Luca Mosca, Marco Cantoretti; sound, Antonio Arroyo; supervising sound editor, Todd Milner; associate producer, David Arquette; assistant director, James Roque; casting, Lina Todd. Reviewed at CineVegas Film Festival (Jackpot Premieres), June 8, 2002. Running time: 89 MIN.

With

Eddie Mars/Tom - Karl Geary Muriel - Shalom Harlow Bill - Clarence Williams III Lois - Ally Sheedy Josephine - Josephine Martin Hannah - Gloria Reuben Amelia - Liane Balaban Eddie - David Arquette Isabel - Isabel Gillies Quintron - Quintron Peter - Nic Ratner John Sinclair - Himself Ernie K-Doe - Himself Antoinette K-Doe - Herself

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