Set in cramped apartments and hole-in-the-wall storefronts in the East Village, Michael M. Bilandic’s nanobudget comedy “Happy Life” plays like a poor schlub’s “High Fidelity,” centered around Keith, a 35-year-old, music-loving sad sack faithful not to the eclectic but to the outmoded techno of the 1990s. Despite the derision his listening choices regularly inspire in trend-following Gothamites, the pic’s title is not entirely ironic, as Keith’s genuine appreciation of the tribal music experience ultimately yields profound, if largely unshared, satisfaction. Fittingly exec produced by cult helmer Abel Ferrara, pic could develop its own fringe following.
Fired from his latest disastrous DJ stint at an upscale tapas bar where he refuses to adapt to the clientele’s tastes, Keith (deadpan standup comedian Tom McCaffrey) clings desperately to his vinyl emporium of rare trance classics, where a few die-hard disco nerds congregate. He decides to throw an old-style rave to raise money to save the failing store, soliciting help from his few friends and infrequent customers. He hires legendary DJ Liquids (Gilles Decamps), a Eurotrash cokehead now spinning celebrity-studded tales of his decadent heyday instead of records. (The pic makes no attempt to connect the disco past to the current worldwide resurgence of electronic music.)
Director Bilandic’s humor is acerbic but never cruel. Keith hops the ferry to Staten Island for a money-seeking family visit, waxing poetic on the finer points of Detroit vs. Chicago house styles for his effusively supportive but utterly clueless parents, who tremulously slip him a hundred bucks. Even Keith’s clumsy moves on a street kid half his age (Amanda Salane), taking place in his squalid, takeout-strewn apartment, ultimately register more as misguided detours on the road to friendship than pathetic sexual fumblings. Like Ferrara, Bilandic celebrates his misfit’s epiphanies, twisted, doomed or out-of-date though they may be, though Keith achieves a measure of lumpen passivity unknown to Ferrara’s angst-ridden Christ figures.
Familiar New York indie actors and directors such as Alex Ross Perry and Kate Lyn Sheil crop up in odd corners, but it’s Perry d.p. Sean Price Williams’ distinctive lensing that gives “Happy” its raw, imagistic power. The color-saturated, communal space Keith yearns for is never really absent as he strides along, his earphones pouring out techno trance, through a city suffused with lurid colors that come to the fore in the pic’s underpopulated but wildly enthusiastic rave scenes.