Not a dream job at the best of times, taking care of one’s mother-in-law becomes a full-blown nightmare in the satisfying black comedy “Happy New Year, Grandma!” Well assembled and featuring a wonderfully depicted family whose sufferings are all too easy to identify with, Basque director Telmo Esnal’s solo directorial debut (he co-helmed 2005’s altogether less accomplished “Go!”) is solid rather than spectacular, and never quite sheds its slightly musty air of old-fashioned craftsmanship. Enjoyable but eminently deja vu, “Grandma” might just make it onto fest screens as a rare example of commercial Basque-language cinema.
The demands of 88-year-old Mari (Montserrat Carulla, even more terrifying here than the disturbing social worker she played in “The Orphanage”) are ruining the life of her daughter Maritxu (Kontxu Odriozola), who nevertheless refuses to put the old woman in a nursing home. Maritxu’s husband, Joxemari (Pedro Otaegi), has a plan: Take Maritxu on vacation, and meanwhile have Mari put into a home with the help of his daughter, Miren (Nagore Aramburu), and her husband, hunting fanatic Kintxo (Joxean Bengoetxea).
So far, so good. But Mari escapes, and when she’s found, by way of apology Miren offers to continue looking after the old woman. The stage is set for Grandma to wreak her revenge on Kintxo and Miren; her killing of Kintxo’s beloved hunting dogs marks merely the prelude to an authentically bleak final act.
Things turn implausible after the hour mark, but the script does a good enough job setting things up early on to make its later excesses forgivable. Several sequences, such as Mari’s escape from the home, are overlong; others, such as one in which Kintxo and his young son try to set up a videocamera to prove Mari is vindictive and not merely absent-minded, are laugh-out-loud funny. All characters besides Mari are written and played with a sympathy that draws auds in, especially the folks with their own aging burdens.
On the thesping side, Paul Giamatti lookalike Bengoetxea is superbly hangdog as the increasingly put-upon Kintxo, his hunting instincts galvanized when the old woman starts to dismantle his family. Other than the occasional primal scream, Carulla’s Mari barely speaks, but still communicates powerfully through bright, watchful eyes and tightly pursed lips; the actress skillfully generates an air of dangerous ambiguity by doing little more than clutching a handbag.
Javier Aguirre’s lensing smartly parodies Gothic and thriller genres; the score does the same, but more clumsily. The Basque country, shown here in all its rich, green beauty, makes an unlikely pastoral backdrop for the comic horrors taking place.