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Movie review: 'Happy, Happy'

The cutting Norwegian comedy about two families is exuberant yet sometimes painful.

September 16, 2011|By Betsy Sharkey, Los Angeles Times Film Critic
  • Agnes Kittelsen and Henrik Rafaelsen star in the Norwegian comedy "Happy, Happy."
Agnes Kittelsen and Henrik Rafaelsen star in the Norwegian comedy "Happy,… (Magnolia Pictures )

The tangy Norwegian comedy "Happy, Happy" is a romantic lark about optimism and infidelity that begins each of its many-chaptered stories with four Norwegian guys outfitted in what look like a series of bad wedding suits and singing gospel tunes.

The gospel singers' presence makes no real sense, but their performances are so zesty and the lyrics do sort of set the stage for what will happen next, that you're kind of happy, happy every time they show up.

As to the two couples at the center of the action, director Anne Sewitsky, in her first feature film, doesn't allow them to be content for very long. Though they seem all smiles, in fact, they're already in the throes of all manner of relationship issues by the time we're introduced, and things are about to go downhill from there. Both have lost their footing in different ways and much of the movie is spent on their slip-slide into one problem after another, and each other.

The setting is a snow-covered rural outpost somewhere in Norway, with Kaja (Agnes Kittelsen) the eternal optimist, living with her repressed and rigid husband, Eirik (Joachim Rafaelsen), and their little general of a son. They've leased out the place next door and the film begins as the new neighbors arrive — an urbane, urban couple, Elisabeth (Maibritt Saerens) and Sigve (Henrik Rafaelsen), and the son they've adopted from Ethiopia.

The multiracial perfect family is just one element in a world of stark contrasts the filmmaker is out to examine. Sewitsky and screenwriter Ragnhild Tronvoll don't step lightly around sensitivities of any type — the two boys play master and slave and it's Kaja's blond, gun-toting progeny pushing the other child around. However it was meant to play — black comedy to increase the discomfort level about racial subtexts perhaps? — those scenes are not funny and just don't make any real contribution to moving the action along.

Still it takes a certain confidence to take risks, and most of the ones Sewitsky ventures pay off. Things fall apart fast over dinner on the first night when the couples play a "how well do you know your partner" game, which is probably responsible for more divorces than you can count. Two questions in and Kaja and Eirik's incompatibilities and embarrassments are laid bare. There are hints that Elisabeth and Sigve's relationship isn't all that it seems either.

The acting ensemble is a good one, with Kittelsen's bubbly Kaja completely disarming, Rafaelsen's Sigve so endearing and the wit just off-center enough that the movie has been a consistent festival favorite, winning the world cinema jury prize at Sundance earlier this year.

Within the protected enclave in Norway's backcountry, the sweeping snowy vistas beautifully shot by cinematographer Anna Myking, who is making her feature film debut too, hearts are exposed and lives unravel in unexpected ways. There are moments of pure joy — try a naked sprint through knee-deep snow instead of a post-coital cigarette, or better yet, both.

For all the zaniness, the movie's understanding and insight come in moments so incisive that the sharpness will sting. At times, "Happy, Happy" is cutting comedy at its brutal best; at times, it slips on the black ice. Still, the love of life is exuberant, the pain exquisite. Now whether the ending is "Happy, Happy," that's left to you to decide.

betsy.sharkey@latimes.com

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