A protracted parade of woefully familiar motifs from the Amerindie playbook, “Happy Endings” comes off like an undernourished Paul Thomas Anderson wannabe. Don Roos’ humorously edged ensembler about a raft of beleaguered SoCal souls bubbles over with emotional dysfunction, ad hoc family units, deceit, self-absorption, sexual channel surfing and little clear thinking or insight. Sundance 2005 opening-nighter looms as a modest commercial entry for Lions Gate upon planned July release.
As Roos unfolds a widescreen canvas upon which to splash three sets of tangentially connected characters, it quickly becomes apparent the writer-director of “The Opposite of Sex,” while aiming to create his most ambitious work, is succeeding in making something merely more pretentious. Festooned throughout with onscreen author’s notes about his subjects’ fates, the narrative sprawls without achieving depth and carries the additional burden of featuring only two or three interesting characters out of 10 candidates.
Betraying the influence not only of Anderson in “Magnolia” mode but also of the structural ploys of Alexander Gonzalez Innaritu in “Amores Perros” and “21 Grams,” Roos opens on a hysterical woman being chased by a man down a street until she’s hit by a car. Jumping back to 1983, yarn alights upon two teen stepsiblings, Charley and Mamie, who get to know one another by going to bed, resulting in a child Marie gives up for adoption.
Two decades later, Mamie (Lisa Kudrow), who’s involved with good-looking Mexican masseur Javier (Bobby Cannavale), is approached by aspiring filmmaker Nicky (Jesse Bradford) to appear in an AFI-submission short. Although he’s staggeringly obnoxious, Nicky has powerful bait for Mamie, as he seems to know her long-lost son. However, the duplicitous Nicky eventually becomes more intrigued by Javier’s story as an illegal who’s used his sexual allure as a meal ticket to a foothold in the United States.
Charley (Steve Coogan), the unwitting father of Mamie’s child, has become a restaurateur who, with lover Gil (David Sutcliffe), is involved in a messy and dramatically boring dispute with a lesbian couple (Laura Dern and Sarah Clarke) in a custody battle involving the latter’s little son, who may or may not have been sired by Gil.
By far the liveliest character is Jude (Maggie Gyllenhaal), a footloose waif who first seduces young gay rock band drummer Otis (Jason Ritter) and subsequently sets her sights on Otis’ father Frank (Tom Arnold), a wealthy widower who’s a sitting duck for a frisky, amoral girl.
This last story strand reps the only engaging one of the three, and offers enough amusing interplay and fluid dynamics to suggest it could have served as the core of an entire film.
Otis’ shaky sense of sexual self could have been further explored, but in Jude and Frank, Roos has two fine characters he frustratingly presents merely for observational purposes rather than taking a look inside them. Jude is a captivating conception, a modern and more cynical version of a ’60s hippie chick — a free spirit whose lack of sexual inhibitions is so complete it makes men of all ages and persuasions check their minds at the bedroom door.
In a vibrant performance, Gyllenhaal underlines her characterization with troubled undercurrents that further the sense of unexplored territory, while Arnold, cast against expectations, offers up a cogent portrait of sympathetic chumpdom.
Roos also errs in sending all the characters into simultaneous downward spirals, which lends the pic negative momentum, where a varied dynamic would have created more nuance and variety of mood. A rapid-fire dose of informational squibs about the characters’ futures attempts to alleviate the downer mood at the end, which comes full circle to the woman’s collision with the automobile at the beginning.
A particular disappointment is Kudrow, who was so comically brilliant in “The Opposite of Sex.” Here, she’s asked to look pinched and drab, her natural humorous instincts almost entirely repressed.
Gyllenhaal, in addition to her lively perf, exhibits a not-bad set of pipes in some club singing interludes.
Pic’s plain style matches its faceless suburban settings.