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“A ‘Happy Ending’ For Audiences”
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It seems absurd to compare the writer of “Boys On The Side” and “Single White Female” to the creator of “M*A*S*H” and “The Player,” yet writer/director Don Roos has constructed a multi-story masterpiece on the level of Robert Altman with “Happy Endings,” a comedy rich in complex character and plot developments.
Adolescent Mamie sleeps with her new stepbrother Charlie and has an abortion when things go awry. Years later, Mamie (now played by Lisa Kudrow), assuages her guilt by counseling at an abortion clinic. Her life turns upside-down when a nefarious filmmaker (Jesse Bradford, “Heights”) blackmails her into producing an audition video for an American Film Institute scholarship (It’s meant to be as absurd as it sounds). Her masseur boyfriend (Bobby Cannavale, “The Station Agent”) becomes entangled in the scheme.
Mamie’s grown-up stepbrother Charlie (Steve Coogan, “Around the World in 80 Days”) runs the family restaurant and lives with his boyfriend (David Sutcliffe, TV’s “I’m With Her”). Also feeling the affects of losing his first child, Charlie becomes paranoid about the child of their lesbian friends (Laura Dern, “Rambling Rose,” and Sarah Clarke, TV’s “24”).
At Charlie’s restaurant, DJ Otis (Jason Ritter, “Joan Of Arcadia”) falls for a new singer, Jude (Maggie Gyllenhaal, “Secretary”) and brings him home where she bewitches his wealthy father (Tom Arnold, TV’s “Roseanne”).
The players of this farce attempt to discover their own boundaries, crossing lines of decency in hilarious and heart wrenching ways.
Roos orchestrates the symphony of human insanity with witty dialogue that revels in its outrageousness. Subtitles act like an omniscient God wryly commenting on the characters’ motives and revealing their futures. Not since the Altman classic “Nashville” have so many stories been told so vividly and with no stories led astray (try saying that about Altman’s “Short Cuts”). Roos’ directorial debut “The Opposite of Sex” revealed the mainstream writer had a devilishly independent edge, but even that satirical comedy didn’t suggest Roos had the genius to pull off so many twisted stories in one evening.
The cast mixes the ridiculous (who would cast Tom Arnold as a sympathetic romantic?) to the sublime (Gyllenhaal’s turn as a gold-digger growing a heart of gold harks back to Jean Harlow’s best work). Yet every actor gives the best performance of their career (yes, even Arnold).
Bradford, an accomplished actor since the age of fourteen (if you haven’t seen Steven Soderberg’s “King Of The Hill” you’re missing out on Bradford’s star turn), plays an endearing sociopath with surprising integrity. As bad seed Nicky, you want to hate him for blackmailing poor Mamie or carrying around a loaded gun like a western bandit, but Bradford’s aw-shucks grin and baby face won’t allow you to take him very seriously.
Though a strong ensemble piece, it is the riveting Kudrow who will delight and haunt you long after the credits role. Damaged by her past, her Mamie bases all her choices on getting back on the correct path. Kudrow has demonstrated, particularly with her multi-layered, almost schizophrenic portrayal of Phoebe Buffay on ten seasons of “Friends” that she never shies away from illustrating the ugliness and pain in even her cheeriest characters. Hopefully the Academy will not automatically discount a comedy, awarding Kudrow a richly deserved Best Actress Oscar.
It’s too early in the year to declare the best picture of 2005. “Crash,” months before, demonstrated spellbinding acting and thought-provoking dialogue on the human condition. But while “Crash”’s preachy undertones turned moving characters into case studies, “Happy Endings” flows like a year in the life of inmates in the asylum called America. It may not be 2005’s biggest masterpiece, but it is its first. Grade: A+

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