A decidedly offbeat blend of mystery-thriller and regional character comedy, “Happy Now” tries too hard to hit too many bases but still reps an interesting feature debut by Irish-born, Welsh-raised helmer Philippa Collie-Cousins. Pic may not translate easily in territories unfamiliar with whimsical Welsh humor (on which it almost entirely depends), and its excess of plot and characters often hampers its stride. But Collie-Cousins shows a good grasp of atmosphere and setting, and draws fine perfs from most of her large cast, signaling moderate business in the hands of a savvy distrib.
Opening reel, set in 1988, describes the event that is to impact the lives of the inhabitants of Pen-y-wig, a small coastal town in southern Wales, years later. After winning a local beauty pageant, Jenny Trent (Emmy Rossum) runs out of gas on a quiet country road on the way home; she’s spotted by Tin Man (veteran Indian actor Om Puri), an eccentric local vagrant, who goes to phone for help. Meanwhile, Jenny’s kind-of b.f., Joe (Richard Coyle), and his buddy, Glen (Paddy Considine), happen by and an argument ensues. Jenny accidentally trips, falls backward and hits her head, dying instantly. Tin Man is pinned for the “murder” and sent down for a long spell.
Flash forward 14 years, according to the screen, and hairdresser Tina Trent (Susan Taylor, almost unrecognizable as a blonde) returns to town from Alaska with her quiet teenage daughter, Nicky (Rossum, again). Nicky’s resemblance to Jenny starts local tongues wagging, and no one is more put out than Joe, especially as Tin Man is about to be released. Glen isn’t exactly delighted either, as he’s now a smooth-talking local pol running for office.
Belinda Bauer’s script and Collie-Cousins’ direction start flavoring the pot with all kinds of gothic, quirky touches even while the main characters are still being introduced. Tina is brassy and way overdue for sexual servicing; Nicky, who goes around with a pet chameleon on her shoulder, is clearly not your average teen daughter; and the hotel they stay in is run by a total eccentric (Alison Steadman, at full tilt) wheeled around in an iron lung machine with a cigarette holder.
Added to which, Jenny’s father (Robert Pugh) is still grieving over his daughter’s death, and there’s a new cop in town, Max (Ioan Gruffudd), who suddenly gets interested in the old case.
The tone becomes increasingly gothic-comic as strange things start to happen in Pen-y-wig. Tin Man is threatened and told to get out of town, and a masked man steals into Nicky’s room at night. She, meanwhile, has been conducting a shy romance with Max, who’s lodging at the same hostelry. Then, Joe, who’s convinced Nicky is Jenny reincarnated, visits a black magic weirdo friend (Jonathan Rhys Myers, in an extended cameo) for help.
Using a rich color palette and narrow depth of field in the widescreen lensing, d.p. Richard Greatrex gives the film a claustrophobic feel that heightens the sense of mystery and creates a creditable separate universe for the characters. Dario Marianelli’s music, moving from pregnant chords to perky pizzicato, is also a big help in reconciling the picture’s shifting tones.
However, by the hour point, one starts to wonder how on earth all the material is going to be pulled together. The answer is that it isn’t — or only by the skin of its teeth, after ditching several characters subsequently revealed as window dressing, and pulling the focus tightly in on Max’s character during the extraordinary, pseudo-Western finale.
Gruffudd, who has real screen charisma, is good as the superstitious cop and best manages the blend of Welsh whimsicality and more serious drama.
Lynch, more often in quieter parts (“Waking Ned,” “Nora”), is OK but is overshadowed by Rossum, excellent in the double role of Jenny and Nicky. Others are fine, especially Puri as the weird vagrant.