Whoever would have thought that of the six actors on the hit TV show Friends, Lisa Kudrow would turn out to have the most acting chops? After playing variations on her dim-bulb TV alter ego, Phoebe, in her early cinematic outings like Mother and Romy and Michelle’s High School Reunion, Kudrow proved a revelation in Don Roos’ indie fave, The Opposite of Sex. While former castmate Jennifer Aniston continues to try to be Julia Roberts: Part 2, Kudrow is proving herself a very capable character actress. She and Roos strike gold again in the auteur’s latest effort, Happy Endings.
The film is one of those post-Altman ensemble pieces with everyone’s stories overlapping and connecting in the most seemingly random of places. If you like the films of Paul Thomas Anderson (especially Magnolia), this film will appeal to you. The story centers around Kudrow’s character and a secret from her past that comes back to haunt her when a wannabe filmmaker (Jesse Bradford) enters her life and wants to make a documentary about said secret, regardless of the impact it will have on her and her illegal-immigrant boyfriend (Bobby Cannavale). Running parallel to this story is a love triangle comprised of a sexually repressed young man (Jason Ritter), his wealthy father (Tom Arnold) and an opportunistic singer (Maggie Gyllenhaal) who enters their lives. There’s also a richly funny subplot with British comic Steve Coogan about what I’ll tastefully refer to as “spermnapping.”
Roos is back in form after going the studio route and fumbling with his last picture, the morose Ben Affleck-Gwyneth Paltrow romantic drama, Bounce. Everything that made The Opposite of Sex so fresh and entertaining is here: the interesting characters and unexpected storylines. Along with that come a few pretentious touches, whose positive or negative impact will vary depending on your tolerance level. Throughout the film, textual sidebars appear to fill the audience in on background information. While this semi-Brechtian tactic initially comes off as a bit cutesy, it gradually becomes an organic part of the film. Also, certain story points don’t bear close scrutiny, but since this film is largely about characters, it’s not distracting.
The acting ensemble is quite wonderful. Maggie Gyllenhaal is impressive in a difficult role (her character shouldn’t be so likeable) and her vocals (which she performed live instead of lip-synching them) are lovely. Kudrow is a powerhouse and, as was the case with The Opposite of Sex, I’m sorry she was overlooked in the Supporting Actress category when this year’s Oscar nominations were announced earlier this week. Cannavale is fun in a colorful smaller role (quite different from his terrific work in the marvelous, overlooked film The Station Agent). Ritter (son of the late actor, John) is also a find, giving a very sensitive, believable performance. Yet the biggest surprise of all may be Tom Arnold, who is likeable and utterly credible as Ritter’s gullible father. I’ve never been a fan of Arnold’s, making his work in this well-cast film the most surprisingly entertaining. The only bum note in the cast is Jesse Bradford, who overdoes the obnoxiousness of his character. Bradford grows on you, but overall his performance is too broad in a film where the rest of the cast does such a good job of playing it straight.
Happy Endings is an extremely satisfying viewing experience. It’s one of the rare ensemble films where the multiple stories are given equal weight and the entire cast creates intriguing, three-dimensional characters. Hopefully, Roos’ achievement will reach a wider audience on DVD than it did during its brief stint in the theaters. Maybe that way, we won’t have to wait another five years for his next project.”
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