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He'd be charming, except that he's a jerk

November 05, 2004|Carina Chocano | Times Staff Writer

What's it all about, alky? For Tulley (Anthony LaPaglia), the failed writer and self-loathing lush at the center of Mike Bencivenga's depressing drama of co-dependence, "Happy Hour," it's about Dad, mostly. Tulley published some stories years ago and has been working on the same novel for 17 years. His father, meanwhile, played by an imperious Robert Vaughn, is a lion-of-American-letters type; remote, withholding, prolific and, of all things, an Algonquin luncher. No wonder his son drinks.

Tulley toils as an editor for a Manhattan advertising agency he calls "drudgery's cathedral," where his best enabler, Levine (Eric Stoltz), author of Tulley's favorite pickup line -- "I'm a drinker with a writing problem" -- also works. Tulley complains about the job, but at least it's a place where his inchoate literary condescension can roam free. By day, he browbeats young, leggy copywriters with copies of Strunk and White. By night, he and Levine give their livers a workout at a local dive.

It's here that Tulley meets his Natalie (Caroleen Feeney), a self-described teacher with a children problem. Tulley immediately suspects she's the girl for him when she matches him drink for drink. His suspicions are confirmed when he wakes up and she's still at his place.

"Happy Hour" is the kind of movie that relies almost entirely on the wit and dissolute charm of its protagonists, sort of like a Noel Coward farce minus the slinky wardrobe and fancy digs and plus the surgeon general's warning. The trouble, though, is that Tulley and Levine's brand of chain-smoking, gin-sodden, last-name-as-first-name, "Man in the Gray Flannel Suit," Jack Lemmon-in-a-Billy-Wilder-movie character isn't nearly as normative as it once was. Sitting around the office drinking out of a flask and sexually harassing their hot, sexy girl-boss, Tulley and Levine don't come off as brave convention-buckers so much as they do overgrown college boys.

As if to complete the picture, Natalie comports herself like an insecure freshman at a frat party, happily accepting a dinnerless happy-hour date after one night of drunken sex and gloating over the cup of instant coffee Tulley offers her after a second. Tulley's response to her glee -- "It's not like we're buying furniture together" -- might have squeaked by as charming, or at least forgivable, if he weren't pushing 50 and his superannuated best friend weren't lolling on the couch in his underwear.

Bencivenga isn't playing these situations for laughs, and he's not down on anybody, either. Instead, he goes for a blinkered, bittersweet romantic wryness that might have worked in characters half these guys' age. Of course, making "Happy Hour" into a story of wasted youth would have obviated the climax, in which the hero learns his liver has handed in its resignation and his colon has quit in solidarity. Having said his howdy-dos to death, Tulley finally finds the strength and the time to finish his novel and play with his colostomy bag.

Imagine "Leaving Las Vegas" seen through beer goggles, and you kind of get the effect. Tulley's moments of humiliation and pain are few and comfortably intimate. His friends turn nursemaid unbidden. Even his long-suffering boss sticks her neck out for him in the end.

LaPaglia, Feeney and Stoltz soldier bravely through an uninspired, airless script, Pagliacci smiles plastered on their faces. But in a world with so many problems, it's hard to drum up any sympathy for these characters' profligate self-destruction. What Tulley and Co. need is not better careers but a life. They do their best to draw us into their circle. But who wouldn't be reluctant to join them? Somebody might see you.


'Happy Hour'

MPAA rating: Unrated

Times guidelines: Heavy drinking, casual sex, dirty jokes, liver failure

Anthony LaPaglia...Tulley

Eric Stoltz...Levine

Caroleen Feeney...Natalie

Robert Vaughn...Ryan Tulley Sr.

Curb Entertainment and Davis Entertainment Filmworks present a J. Todd Harris & O'Hara/Klein production. Director Mike Bencivenga. Producers J. Todd Harris, Eric Klein, Kimberly Shane O'Hara. Executive producer John Davis. Screenplay by Richard Levine, Mike Bencivenga, story by Richard Levine. Director of photography Giselle Chamma. Editors Nina Kawasaki, Robert F. Landau. Music Jeffrey M. Taylor. Production design Tema Levine. Costume design Nancy Brous. Running time: 1 hour, 33 minutes.

Exclusively at the AMC Media Center 8, Media City Center, 201 E. Magnolia Blvd., Burbank, (818) 953-9800.

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