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Happy Endings

Directed by Don Roos. Starring Lisa Kudrow, Steve Coogan, Jesse Bradford, Bobby Cannavale, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Jason Ritter, Tom Arnold, David Sutcliffe, Sarah Clarke, Laura Dern. (2005, R, 128 min.)

REVIEWED By Kimberley Jones, Fri., July 29, 2005

Happy Endings

The title may refer with a smirk to that other kind of happy ending – when a masseuse, cough, finishes with a bang – but writer/director Don Roos is most interested in the literal kind: in sending off his spectacularly dysfunctional characters into the sunset with not a smirk, but a wink and a smile. It’s an uphill battle, to be sure – the gang includes a blackmailer, an illegal alien, and a sexual raptor simultaneously seducing a father and his son – but Roos looks kindly even on the most "villainous" of the lot (villainous in that they are master manipulators; the rest are just bunglers). The plot, which follows three occasionally colliding stories, is a messy pileup of convenience and contrivance, but damn it all, I didn’t mind a lick. There is Mamie, an emotionally closeted abortion counselor (Kudrow), who is blackmailed by a would-be filmmaker (Bradford). Mamie’s stepbrother, Charley (Coogan), noticing a striking resemblance between his lover and the son of their best gal pals, becomes convinced that his lover’s sperm has been unwittingly used by the lesbian couple (convinced to the point of obsession and high hilarity, as British funnyman Coogan rifles frantically through their freezer looking for sperm-on-ice). Finally, there is Otis (Ritter), unwilling to acknowledge his homosexuality despite happy-ending himself every night to boss Charley’s image. Otis tries (badly) to go straight with a freeloading singer named Jude (Gyllenhaal), then stands by in horror as Jude moves on to his father (Arnold). It’s a bit of a jaw-dropper to watch Arnold, late of such yuck-yucks as The Stupids and McHale’s Navy, deliver such a sensitive, heartrending performance, but then Happy Endings is rife with surprises, both in plotting and execution (including the inspired inclusion of Dirty Three and Calexico on the soundtrack, in addition to – who woulda thunk it? – Gyllenhaal’s dead-sexy chanteuse). Initially, Roos’ habit of inserting intertitles to introduce characters – and to editorialize, too – is unsettling, until it simply becomes, like a friend’s nervous tic, just another of the weird ways in which Happy Endings functions and flourishes. This is Roos’ third film in the director’s chair (his screenwriting credits include Single White Female and Love Field): He’s carried over the edginess and warped sibling relations of his terrific debut, The Opposite of Sex, and from his really awful sophomore effort, Bounce, he’s … well, thankfully, he’s left most of that debacle behind him, save its sentimentality. Happy Endings is unabashedly sentimental (cheekily couched in a black-comic guise), with Roos acting as a sort of benevolent god over his characters. With the intertitles, he quietly tips over the fourth wall; in an early instance, he urges us to give Mamie a second chance, knowing that at first glance she appears unlovable. Sometimes his benevolence is too much – the forward thrust gets shot to hell when he insists on giving all of his characters-in-crises music-backed montages – but it’s undeniable that these characters are dear to him. And damn it all if they don’t become dear to us, too.

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