Like its almost oxymoronic title, indie pic “Happy Tears” is a contradictory creature, both insightful and dumb, sometimes innovative and sometimes just plain inept. Dreamy, funny but also weirdly disjointed, it’s as if the very film itself were stoned, just like its two pot-smoking sister protags (Parker Posey and Demi Moore) who come to Pittsburgh to deal with their dementia-afflicted dad (Rip Torn). Sophomore outing for writer-helmer Mitchell Lichtenstein won’t be able to count on the same horror fan base Lichtenstein’s clever-stupid debut “Teeth” had, but handled right, “Tears” could make adventurous distribs moderately happy, especially in ancillary.
Ditsy younger sister Jayne (Parker Posey), and her more pragmatic older sibling Laura (Demi Moore), an environmental scientist, both live in California’s Bay Area but grew up in Pittsburgh, where their widowed father Joe (Rip Torn) still resides. Laura cajoles Jayne to return East to help with the increasingly troublesome Joe, a trip Jayne, who’s prone to daydreams and self-delusion, is clearly putting off.
Jayne, however, doesn’t have much else to do but shop, and her rich, depressed husband Jackson (Christian Camargo) is always busy dealing with the legacy of his late father, a famous artist. (helmer is the son of pop artist Roy Lichtenstein.) So off to Pittsburgh she goes, where within minutes of arriving she’s forced to help Laura clean Joe up after he’s crapped his pants, an impressively unflinching, deeply realistic scene that might repulse some auds, but will strike a shuddering chord of recognition for others who have had to care for sick loved ones.
Also living at the family home is Joe’s floozy g.f. Shelly (Ellen Barkin, looking fabulously skanky), who claims she’s a nurse and wears a stethoscope to prove it. Her filthy hands and trashy wardrobe suggest she’s working in a much rougher profession.
From here on the two sisters debate whether Shelly is a benign or malevolent figure (turns out she’s a bit of both), and whether they should in the long run have Joe put in a nursing home or care for him themselves, among other conundrums. Grief over the recent death of their mother (Susan Blommaert in flashback) and long-simmering resentments further cloud the issues.
Script by Lichtenstein show a sly subtlety in the way it gradually introduces secondary characters who turn out to have bigger roles than expected and drops others (like Jackson) who would initially seem set to be important. Despite the story’s largely sad thrust, pic’s various plot strands tie up in a surprisingly upbeat, tidy fashion. In other words, “Happy Tears” is less of a mess than it looks, despite its quirk-infested, baggy midsection.
It’s clear throughout that Lichtenstein is a better writer than director; pic’s good basic ingredients never quite emulsify, a result of slipshod editing as well as of Lichtenstein’s shaky control over the perfs. Posey, a thesp who’s sometimes brilliant and other times simply mannered, is allowed to overindulge her propensity for tics and twitches. Moreover, her register doesn’t match up with Moore, who underplays too much even if she’s credible as a level-headed, no-nonsense gal (albeit one too glamorous-looking for how the character is written) Torn, at least, delivers the required goods as a lovable, increasingly addled scumbag rogue, which might have been just another variant on the crazy grandpa role Alan Arkin played in “Little Miss Sunshine” and Philip Bosco played in “The Savages,” but which Torn make his own.
On the back of this and “Teeth,” it’s obvious Lichtenstein has a jones for strong, oddball female protags, an inclination that ought to be encouraged in a climate where too many femme-centric pics are patronizingly banal. More development, or a tougher producer or script editor, might have ironed out the kinks in “Happy Tears.”
Tech credits are largely pro, although there’s too much of Robert Miller’s undistinguished score, which seems out of kilter with the spirit of the movie.