"Happy Endings" opens with a hysterical Mamie (Lisa Kudrow) running down a suburban street and straight into the path of an oncoming car. As she lies on the pavement covered in blood, her stepbrother Charley (Steve Coogan) hovering anxiously, a title card splits the screen in half. "She's not dead," it reads. "Nobody dies in this movie. It's a comedy, sort of."
Arriving seven years after "The Opposite of Sex," Don Roos' pitch-dark, kick in the teeth of a first feature, "Happy Endings" is as bawdy, self-conscious, jaded and still sweetly optimistic as its double-entendre of a title suggests. It's basically a loose cluster of stories about Angelenos in various stages of romantic disaffection and flux. (And, yes, one of them is a massage therapist.)
The omniscient (and sassy) title cards pop up like mushrooms as the characters are introduced -- spilling their secrets, digging up old dirt, foretelling their futures -- then abate until near the end of the movie. Killing a little suspense here, inserting a sad fact into a light moment there, the title cards serve as perverse instructions to maintain a critical distance from the fiction on screen. If Roos' lost, hapless characters and talented cast (including an adorable Jason Ritter and a surprisingly endearing Tom Arnold) are too involving for that to be entirely possible, they are still a decent reminder that, ultimately, "Happy Endings" is a story about stories, and their function in helping us get through in life.
Mamie, we learn, is a divorced, lonely-despite-not-being-alone therapist who works as a counselor at an abortion clinic. As a teenager, she got pregnant by Charley, and secretly gave the baby up for adoption instead of having an abortion as she'd planned to do. Charley, who is gay and managing a restaurant he inherited from his father, is floating in a sludge of domestic torpor with his partner, the smug and supercilious Gil (David Sutcliffe).
Mamie is approached out of the blue one day by a young guy named Nicky (Jesse Bradford), who offers to introduce her to her child if she'll let him film the reunion as an application to film school. Instead, she offers the trumped-up story of her boyfriend, Javier (Bobby Cannavale), a Mexican massage therapist who pretends to be a sex worker for the benefit of the admissions department at AFI.
As Mamie gets increasingly involved with Nicky, Charley begins to suspect that Gil is the father of their best friends' Pam (Laura Dern) and Diane's (Sarah Clarke) son, and devises an elaborate lie to find out. Meanwhile, his wistful employee Otis (Ritter) pines for romance, as for that matter does Frank (Arnold), Otis' rich, widowed dad, whose guilelessness and good intentions make him an easy mark.
When his band's lead singer goes into rehab, Otis asks Jude (Maggie Gyllenhaal) to fill in, an opportunity she quickly twists to blackmail Otis and catapult herself into Frank's affections. Roos' trenchant humor -- a pair of tombstones belonging to Mamie's mother and stepfather, for instance, bear the cursive inscription "Don't Drink and Drive" -- is still in evidence, but his empathy toward his characters seems to have deepened in the years between his films.
The characters can be divided, more or less down the middle, into your classic sharks and turkeys, but neither side bears the brunt of the ridicule, opprobrium or scorn. Much of the humor in "Happy Endings" is drawn from its most painful moments, when the characters realize to their horror that they've made a big, irreversible, life-altering mistake.
Why aren't there more American movies like this? I mean smart, unpretentious, sophisticated, un-condescending and cheap. One throwaway scene like the one in which sanctimonious alterna-hipster parents Diane and Pam move to Pittsburgh and "go back on sugar" is worth 10 of Tom Cruise trying to avoid being mistaken for an alien juice box.
"Happy Endings" lives up to its title not because Roos rigs it that way -- some of the characters don't find love, others do and (title cards) die young -- but because he trusts they'll end up exactly where they're supposed to.
MPAA rating: R for sexual content, language and some drug use
A Lions Gate release. Writer-director Don Roos. Producers Holly Wiersma, Michael Paseornek. Executive producers Tom Ortenberg, Nick Meyer, Michael Burns, Mike Elliott. Director of photography Clark Mathis. Production designer Richard Sherman. Editor David Codron. Costume designer Peggy Anita Schnitzer. Running time: 2 hours, 10 minutes.
In selected theaters.