Gorgeous lensing, a tongue-in-cheek script and playful thesping grace Gabriele Salvatores' English-monikered "Happy Family."

Gorgeous lensing, a tongue-in-cheek script and playful thesping grace Gabriele Salvatores’ English-monikered “Happy Family.” So why does it feel like the work of an extremely precocious freshman helmer instead of a seasoned veteran? This deliberately theatrical comedy about two disparate families springing from the imagination of a neurotic writer self-consciously pays tribute to a slew of influences, but the energetic pace aimlessly barrels forward, and despite some good scenes, the pic rarely displays genuine depth of thought. Opening weekend brought in a solid $1.5 million, signifying happier Italo auds than their prospective offshore equivalents.

Salvatores tips his hat to the film’s theatrical origins (co-scripter Alessandro Genovesi helped adapt his own play) with opening and closing shots of a stage curtain, prepping auds for the trans-proscenium interplay to come. Ezio (Fabio De Luigi) is the story’s conjurer, a writer who announces to the camera that he’s writing a story illustrating his notion that people are almost incurably afraid of life.

The ensuing characters all have their own voices, each speaking to the viewer to introduce him- or herself. Vincenzo (Fabrizio Bentivoglio) is a wealthy banker just diagnosed with a brain tumor, which he’s hiding from his family. He has a daughter, Caterina (Valeria Bilello), from his late first wife, while his second wife, Anna (Margherita Buy), has a closeted gay son, Filippo (Gianmaria Biancuzzi), from her late first husband.

Though just 16, Filippo announces he’s marrying fellow student Marta (Alice Croci). Her parents, known simply as Mom (Carla Signoris) and Dad (Diego Abatantuono), are the flip side of Vincenzo and family: Where the latter are firmly bourgeois, the former are more earthy, though no less neurotic — the women, anyway. The men may be coasting, but at least they enjoy what they have.

Pic’s winningly breathless style is a model of dense but concise scripting, but the pic moves like a runaway train, bypassing every major signpost until it pulls into a very minor station. It’s not a problem that Salvatores and Genovesi borrow so freely, especially from Luigi Pirandello’s “Six Characters in Search of an Author.” The problem is that they seem to want to make an intelligent comedy, but instead make a parody of one.

The warning signs come early: A gratuitous scene in a Chinese massage parlor milks very tired laughs out of the masseuse (Man Lo Zhang) stereotypically mispronouncing Italian. Ezio admits to the camera that the sequence is superfluous, but the so-called humor is borderline offensive; other gags merely feel long in the tooth. Thankfully, the thesps are a generally appealing bunch, and it’s difficult not to like these characters, with all their quirks, as much as the scripters do.

The film looks marvelous, thanks in no small part to crackerjack d.p. Italo Petriccione; gorgeous colors are artfully matched, especially reds in every shade including crimson, cranberry, scarlet, vermilion and brick. They’re lovely to look at, but Salvatores doesn’t appear to do anything with them; auds will look to decode the tonal symbolism and simply draw a blank. Similarly, the helmer includes a stunning black-and-white montage sequence of Milan at night, an obvious homage to Woody Allen’s “Manhattan” ravishingly accompanied by Chopin’s Nocturne No. 20, but since the pic is hardly a love poem to Milan, the sequence is akin to a memorable perfume ad.

The songs of Simon & Garfunkel form a constant, pleasurable accompaniment, meant in some ways to signal Ezio’s difficulty in moving forward in life. Ever sensitive to the pairing of music and image, Salvatores gets good mileage from his generally homogenous soundtrack.

Happy Family

Italy

Production

An 01 Distribution release of a Colorado Film, Rai Cinema production. (International sales: Rai Trade, Rome.) Produced by Maurizio Totti. Directed by Gabriele Salvatores. Screenplay, Alessandro Genovesi, Salvatores, based on the play by Genovesi.

Crew

Camera (color/B&W, widescreen), Italo Petriccione; editor, Massimo Fiocchi; production designer, Rita Rabassini; costume designer, Patrizia Chericoni; sound (Dolby Digital), Mauro Lazzaro; assistant director, Alessandro Pascuzzo; casting, Francesco Vedovati. Reviewed at Cinema Quattro Fontane, Rome, March 27, 2010. Running time: 92 MIN.

With

Fabio De Luigi, Diego Abatantuono, Fabrizio Bentivoglio, Margherita Buy, Carla Signoris, Valeria Bilello, Gianmaria Biancuzzi, Alice Croci, Corinna Agustoni, Sandra Milo, Man Lo Zhang.

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