An attempted X-ray of the gender wars from a politically correct, contempo perspective, Robert Santiago’s feature debut, “Happy Men,” is studded with memorable moments, but they fail to cohere. Solid ensemble playing and the odd clever gag can’t redeem a project that seems to believe it is saying something new when it’s actually well-worn. Pic is particularly disappointing, coming after the freshness and charm of helmer’s 1999 short “Roulette,” which played at Cannes. Home B.O. has not been spectacular, but “Men” does at least show writer-director mining a distinctive stylistic seam of his own. Offshore possibilities, particularly in some Euro territories, look less unhappy than for most Spanish first-timers.
First scene sets the tone, with Angel (the always watchable Sergi Lopez) and his friend (Carlos Hipolito) chatting and smoking as they sit in adjacent cars, receiving blow jobs from hookers. Angel’s unhappy marriage to Ana (an aggressively shorn Aitana Sanchez-Gijon) is held together by their four children. While Angel’s brother (Pepon Nieto) doesn’t understand why women are turned off by his job in an arms factory, the wife of Angel’s friend is having a relationship with his boss. The suppressed pain of the scene where we learn this is nicely brought out.
Ana, suspecting Angel is having an affair, asks a scatty, ex-jailbird friend (Maria Esteve, slightly flat) to tail him. After seeing Angel having sex with his secretary, the friend confronts him and the two end up having sex together. Ana’s reaction is that this mustn’t affect her friendship but, after she comes home to find Angel again with the secretary — a scene brilliantly played by Lopez as straight farce — she reveals she’s having an affair with his brother. Pic then rolls on to an implausible conclusion involving women with guns.
The film is an uncertain mixture of comedy and drama, without enough of either to compensate for its hollow feel. The dialogue is strangely paced and sometimes just plain stilted, while the inclusion of Angel’s fearsome mother (Mary Carmen Ramirez) is too cliched to have any impact at all. Pic’s desire to show all men as immature chauvinists with their brains between their legs and all women as strong and intelligent doesn’t help. And the decision not to give supporting characters any names — perhaps to emphasize the universality of the message — is bizarre.
Lensing is stylish and sometimes daring, while heavy doses of Leonard Cohen’s lugubrious tones are featured to good effect on the soundtrack.