Happy Endings movie review, Don Roos, Lisa Kudrow, Steve Coogan, Laura Dern, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Jesse Bradford, Jason Ritter, Tom Arnold. Review by Rob Blackwelder ©SPLICEDwire
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"Happy Endings"
3 stars
128 minutes | Rated: R
LIMITED: Friday, July 15, 2005
Written & directed by Don Roos

Starring Lisa Kudrow, Steve Coogan, Laura Dern, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Jesse Bradford, Jason Ritter, Tom Arnold, David Sutcliffe, Bobby Cannavale, Sarah Clarke, Eric Jungmann, Hallee Hirsh

  • Don Roos
  • Lisa Kudrow
  • Steve Coogan
  • Laura Dern
  • Maggie Gyllenhaal
  • Jesse Bradford
  • Jason Ritter
  • Tom Arnold

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    Writer-director's tongue-in-cheek text narration lets audience in on characters' secrets in 'Happy Endings'

    By Rob Blackwelder

    A comedy-of-life roundelay about several sexually mixed-up denizens of L.A., "Happy Endings" returns writer-director Don Roos to the sardonic psychological territory he trod in his stinging black-humor debut "The Opposite of Sex."

    After opening with a hysterical woman named Mamie (Lisa Kudrow) getting hit by a car, he introduces a humorously detached meta-film narration style when the screen splits in two, and words appear on a black background to reassure us that "No one dies in this movie. It's a comedy. Sort of."

    "What happens next," the lettering continues, "was 20 years ago" -- at which point we learn that Mamie got knocked up at 16 and was supposed to have an abortion, but secretly gave up the baby for adoption. The unknowing father was her stepbrother Charley (Steve Coogan), who is now gay ("Who isn't?" quips the text on the screen) and has run the family restaurant business into the ground since the death of their parents.

    But Roos is just getting warmed up. Soon an aspiring documentary filmmaker (a scruffy Jesse Bradford) with zero scruples is offering angry, neurotic Mamie information about her son -- but only if he can make a movie about their reunion. Connected more loosely to these characters are a lesbian couple (Laura Dern and Sarah Clarke) who may have secretly conceived their child with Charley's boyfriend's sperm, and Jude (Maggie Gyllenhaal), a blunt and sultry free-spirited young gold-digger who seduces a sexually conflicted rich kid (Jason Ritter) on her way to landing a much bigger fish -- his lonely dad (Tom Arnold).

    Although these stories sometimes slide in disingenuous directions and couldn't stand on their own (they're largely predicated on slightly deeper versions of sitcom misunderstandings), Roos has a gift for weaving good laughs out of human failings and frailties. What's more, he knows how to churn up trauma and unsuspected depth in actors not hitherto known for their abilities to emote.

    Strong performances are to be expected from talents like Kudrow (who worked for Roos in "Sex") and the enormously gifted Gyllenhaal ("Secretary"), the centers of the film's two main stories. But who would expect that often-monosyllabic Arnold (known mostly for Fox's "The Best Damn Sports Show") could find such sad-sack heart playing an insecure father? Or that the blank stare of Ritter (son of John, who has made mostly horror movies) could become a symbol of an unmolded soul? Or that Bradford (known for teen fare like "Clockstoppers" and "Swimfan" before playing gay in last month's "Heights") could so successfully tap his inner sleezeball -- and in a way that still finds a touch of crude charm.

    "That's not a zoom, by the way," he smirks to Kudrow while showing her a shot of his crotch in the movie he's making. "That's the way it is -- like a penis, only bigger."

    It's the fact that these characters are interesting and complicated that makes the ironically titled "Happy Endings" work despite Roos' sometimes obvious plot devices. Well, that and the enjoyably odd asides of text narration that sometimes see into the future as well as the past.

    Some may see the film's self-aware commentary as a screenwriting crutch or a cheat that takes emotional interpretation out of the audience's hands. But really it's just Roos' way of stepping back to point out the warped but heartfelt humor in situations his characters wouldn't find funny at all.

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