“Not every love lasts forever … fortunately” is the telling logline for “Happy Times,” a smart, offbeat comedy about how hard it is to end a romantic relationship. Luis Javier M. Henaine’s playful, entertaining feature debut preemed in a strong competition lineup at this year’s Morelia fest and scored a major distribution deal with Cinepolis, the fest sponsor. Offshore programmers and Spanish-lingo buyers could have happy times of their own with this slickly made, winningly performed anti-romantic comedy.
Mild-mannered cartoonist Max (an endearingly nerdy turn from Luis Arrieta) isn’t pleased with the way his life is currently going. He works as an illustrator at an ad agency simply for the money, and he just can’t break things off with the overbearing girlfriend from hell, Monica (Cassandra Ciangherotti, scary good). When he tries, in spite of his best efforts, he can’t even get the words out; unfortunately, she assumes that he is proposing.
Hearing the news, his slacker barber pals Niko (Humberto Busto) and Rigo (Ivan Arana) mock him for being a milquetoast. Luckily, one of their customers hands him a card for the Abaddon Agency, which specializes in getting rid of that person who is standing in the way of your life. The enigmatic Agency occupies a large building, manned by a few curt employees who look straight out of Terry Gilliam’s “Brazil” or something by Franz Kafka. Desperate Max signs a contract as thick as a book, without bothering to read the fine print.
The Agency operates in mysterious ways, keeping the naive Max entirely in the dark. Although he has an overactive imagination (visualized in numerous clever fantasy scenes and his illustrations), he doesn’t think to question why Monica’s femme-fatale sister, Andrea (Barbara de Regil), would seduce him, or why the smarmy Agency psychiatrist (Miguel Rodarte) would ask such pointed questions about what Monica likes.
While it’s common to see films about looking for and finding love, it’s rare to find a comedy about the dissolution of a relationship. What makes “Happy Times” stand out, and lends it considerable charm, is that it also acknowledges how contradictory human beings and their relationships can be.
Young indie helmer Henaine honed his skills directing TV commercials, musicvideos and shorts, and his script (written with Alejandra Olvera Avila) and mise-en-scene prove that he also has a sharp grasp of film history and genre. While not precisely a pastiche, “Happy Times” pays tribute to Woody Allen and ’40s film noir, while also offering a tip of the hat to the tender humanism of Mexico’s own slacker comedies, as served up by Fernando Eimbcke.
Leading a strong tech package, the dynamic widescreen lensing by Diego Garcia reinforces the character’s personalities. Although the action takes place in a non-specified time, production designer Christopher Lagunes Villavicencio gives it a hip 1980s look. It’s a retro pleasure to see characters using a rotary telephone and watching VHS tapes.