Lisa Kudrow and Jesse Bradford star in Happy Endings.
Credit: Beth Rankin
Lisa Kudrow fans, beware.
In the opening scene of Happy Endings, something so shocking and unexpected happens to the former Friend you’ll find yourself wondering if the comedic indie drama is going to live up to its name.
But, as a black-and-white text box quickly assures, no one dies in Happy Endings and everything gets considerably more light-hearted from that jarring event at the film’s start.
That’s because the audience is in the able, witty hands of Don Roos, the writer/director of 1998’s The Opposite of Sex, an instantly memorable indie comedy featuring a bitch-tastic performance from Christina Ricci and a strong dramatic turn from comedienne Kudrow, who reteams with Roos for with Happy Endings.
Set in L.A., the film’s plot is considerably more complicated than the comparatively straightforward storylines of Sex and Bounce.
The basic plot is this: Kudrow plays Mamie, who at 17 gets pregnant by her stepbrother Charley (Steve Coogan) and ends up putting her baby up for adoption. Mamie tells no one about her pregnancy, not even Charley, until she meets Nicky (Jesse Bradford), an aspiring documentary filmmaker who tells her he has information on her abandoned son and wants to film a movie on her quest to find him.
Although Mamie immediately objects to this suggestion, she is suddenly curious to learn more about the son she left behind and enlists her Mexican masseuse boyfriend (Bobby Canavale) to help Nicky make a fake documentary in exchange for her son’s name and contact information.
Meanwhile, Charley is embroiled in his own paternity conflict, after the father of his lesbian friends Diane (Sarah Clarke) and Pam’s (Laura Dern) baby is called into question, leading him to mistrust his long-time boyfriend Gil (David Sutcliffe).
Charley also works at a restaurant where Otis (Jason Ritter), a closeted gay drummer for a local band whose new vocalist Jude (Maggie Gyllenhaal) falls for Otis and sleeps with him in attempt to turn him straight. Hard up on money, Jude later dumps Otis for his wealthy father Frank (Tom Arnold) for the sake of money and a steady place to stay.
Roos weaves these multiple stories fairly evenly throughout the course of the film, but it’s the bits with Kudrow and Gyllenhaal that are the best.
Kudrow is the emotional core of Happy Endings, as her Mamie is forced to deal with the first mention of her son in two decades as well as the potential collapse of her most sound relationship in years with her boyfriend, Javier. Her eventual attempt to literally run away from all her problems is what opens the film with an unnerving jolt and is eventually revisited to ward the conclusion.
And as Jude, Maggie Gyllenhaal completely sells Otis, Frank and the audience into thinking that her intentions are anything but good, despite the fact that she’s the most deceptive, self-serving character Roos has written since Sex’s Dede Truitt. Gyllenhaal is witty, devilishly beguiling and incredibly charismatic, everything you would expect from an aspiring entertainer in L.A.
She’s even got a nice set of pipes perfect for jazz crooning, which she demonstrates during several scenes with two Billy Joel covers and a few original tunes that make up the movie’s soundtrack.
Roos’ script is occasionally littered with some of the same bite that made Opposite of Sex such a catty delight, but at 130 minutes those moments often seem few and far between. The Charley and Gil subplot, though well acted by all involved — especially Dern, who uses her no-bullshit stare to great effect on Sutcliffe — could probably stand to be excised entirely, and there are even moments of Mamie’s story that veer toward tedium.
That’s not to say that Happy Endings falters during its dramatic moments, as each cast member impresses in his/her “big scene.” Tom Arnold is most surprising by coming off as the most sympathetic character in the film, although Jason Ritter excels in showing all sides of his complicated Otis, who is all but forgotten once Gylenhaal’s Jude ditches him for Arnold’s Frank.
True to its title, Happy Endings does indeed come through with many positive resolutions for nearly all of its main characters, but only after each of their lives has been significantly altered. Flaws aside, Happy Endings is engagingly acted, sharply written and always sunny — literally, given its L.A. setting — making it an ideal indie for the summer movie season.
Contact Pop Arts editor Andrew Hampp at [email protected]