Few helmers today make comedies as consistently entertaining as those of Argentina’s Daniel Burman, and “The Mystery of Happiness” is no exception. Often called the Woody Allen of Latin America, Burman delivers the goods with a reliable brand of pleasant, relationship-based humor tied to solid production values: His latest, geared toward a mature demographic, charts the shockwaves that result when an outwardly content businessman abandons his wife and best friend. Following an early 2014 home release, “Happiness” has outpaced even the director’s previous successes (“Lost Embrace,” “Empty Nest”); international sales have been strong, and Strand’s Stateside release could see modest biz if marketed right.
Eugenio (Fabian Arenillas) and Santiago (Guillermo Francella, “The Secret in Their Eyes”) are in perfect synchronicity: Whether at the home appliance shop they co-own or during their off hours at the barber, the race track or the shoe shop, their partnership is so perfect that their very movements are seamlessly coordinated. Life is great, and for Santiago the only improvement would be to expand the store. Eugenio, however, tells wife Laura (Ines Estevez, making a welcome return to the bigscreen) that he wants to sell up.
Then, one morning, Eugenio fails to show at work and doesn’t answer his phone. Laura arrives near closing time telling Santiago that Eugenio has ankled, but Santiago can’t believe it: He’s Eugenio’s best friend, he knows everything about him. Feeling even more betrayed than the garrulous, pill-popping Laura, Santiago can’t accept that Eugenio could abandon their friendship.
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Unsure where to turn, they contact retired Inspector Oudukian (Alejandro Awada), a private dick who, rumor has it, was formerly with Interpol and Mossad. The amusingly caricatured detective offers to coach their investigation: Looking at a photo of Eugenio, he spies a faraway look in the missing man’s eyes, rightly guessing that the guy’s departure was less sudden than his loved ones think.
One the one hand, “The Mystery of Happiness” is about a typical midlife crisis, yet Burman chooses to focus not on the motivations of the guy who bailed (although Eugenio becomes a sympathetic figure despite his cowardly act), but rather on the two people whose lives he anchored. Laura charges into her husband’s office determined to fill his shoes, much to Santiago’s horror, and it becomes clear the marriage wasn’t exactly stellar. Nor, however, was it the footnote of his business partner’s imagining. Santiago thought he was privy to everything in his friend’s life, so it comes as a shock when Laura tells him that Eugenio loved to go dancing, revealing a side that Santiago never imagined existed. And it’s not the only one.
It’s this consideration of the roles of business partner, friend and spouse that gives “Happiness” its individuality. How well do we really know our friends or companions, and what does it say about someone who abandons a lifetime of relationships for the dreams of youth? At the start, Santiago is far more shallow than Eugenio, but as the former learns more about his friend’s life, he undergoes his own self-realization, becoming an individual thanks in part to a growing bond with Laura. Since this is about the rupture of a bromance, Burman doesn’t even hint at feelings that might go beyond friendship.
Collaborating for the second time (after “All In”) with scripter Sergio Dubcovsky, Burman cleaves to to several of his usual themes including marital crisis and male bonding, though unusually, “Happiness” has no parent-child conflicts to work through. The mood is largely bouncy, the dialogue spry, and the actors, who include some of Argentina’s best-known comic performers, are masters of timing and couldn’t be better suited to their roles. Burman’s ability to deliver a slick, warm-hearted package is again in evidence, with an added touch of visual playfulness.