(Ellen Barkin as the still attractive, viper-like mother of the groom in the outrageously drawn though trainwreck like fascination that is Sam Levinson's Another Happy Day. Image courtesy of Phase 4 Films.)
I’m not sure I’ve seen a movie this year I am as conflicted about as Sam Levinson’s debut feature, Another Happy Day. It was the last competition title I saw at Sundance this year. The son of the Hollywood filmmaker Barry Levinson, the twenty-five year Sam won the Waldo Scott award for his elaborately, outlandishly carpentered script.
Every time I was ready to give up on it, something happened, an actor’s gesture, a sharp exchange, kept me in my seat. The good moments are swallowed in the inchoate mess the movie is. It has a blistering speed and frenetic momentum that is alternately wired, entertaining and exhausting.
It was finally too much of too much.
The story is centered around a family wedding, a form so pervasive in American movies they threaten to constitute a subcategory all their own. It makes sense on a story level given the particular manner the ritual allows a riot of possibilities involving class, money, race and above all, sex.
The form reached its zenith during the Depression, when great artists like George Cukor turned out sublime, radical masterpieces like Holiday. In Father of the Bride, Vincente Minnelli introduced a wistful, mourning quality for a time and innocence vanquished.
In the modern era, Robert Altman opened up a new direction with his A Wedding, the roundelay and interwoven story that attacks social mores and lays to waste the hypocrisy, absurdity and epic family dysfunction prevalent in the occasion.
Another Happy Day differs substantially from recent entries like Jonathan Demme’s Rachel Getting Married and Noah Baumbach’s Margot at the Wedding, by paying little if any significant attention to the actual couple. (The actress that plays the bride does not, to the best of my knowledge, utter a line of dialogue.)
In Barry Levinson’s sparkling and sharp debut Diner, a lot of impressive young actors, Steve Guttenberg, Daniel Stern, (even Mickey Rourke) and Ellen Barkin made their name in that terrific feature. Now, some three decades later, Barkin is the galvanizing force in her layered, flamboyant lead as the outrageously aggrieved mother trying to come to terms with her past and hold together her almost demonically splintered family.
That’s not to say there is not some fun to be had. The young filmmaker certainly knows how to start the conversation. The movie is spiky and outré, obvious from the opening line as the participants of the conversation are heard though not seen:
“Do you think Mom is hot?”
Barkin plays Lynn, a viper with a sharp tongue who’s defensive, on edge and never one to back down from a confrontation. At the start of the film, she’s driving her two youngest sons, 17-year-old Elliot (Ezra Miller) and Ben (Daniel Yelsky), the conversationalists of the opening, to the upper-class estate of her parents (George Kennedy and Ellen Burstyn) in Annapolis on the occasion of the marriage of her oldest son.
The fireworks are just getting started, especially since the wedding returns Lynn not just to her roots but the source of past pain and recrimination, embodied in the shape of her ex-husband (Thomas Hayden Church) and his trophy wife (Demi Moore). As if that were not enough to deal with, Elliot, a ruthless charmer with a sharp tongue and dangerously quick wit, has done four stints in drug rehab and has a knack for getting kicked out of all the best schools. The youngest son has been diagnosed with a low level grade of autism.
Tonally, Another Happy Day is exaggerated and aggressively over the top. Lynn is brusque with her two other sisters. Her father, a decorated Navy officer, is bedeviled by heart ailments aggravated by a faulty pacemaker. Meanwhile, Lynn’s mother is the kind of patrician Southern belle (“You’re twice as old as civil rights,” says the younger grandchild) who’d rather ignore or pretend problems don’t exist rather than actually confront them.
“Don’t you have something you want to say to me,” Lynn constantly implores her.
Levinson certainly has a facility for one-liners. To his credit he knows how to juggle a lot of loose ends. The movie’s catalyst for drama and action is Elliot. He lives dangerously off-kilter and knows how to drop the bomb at precisely the right moment.
His addiction is nearly doing him in. In a funny gag that turns dark, he riffles through his grandfather’s drug stash to find a pharmaceutical that turns his lips a shade so dark, he has to apply lipstick to cover up his transgression.
Into this combustible mixture comes Alice (Kate Bosworth), Lynn’s daughter. She plays the kind of fragile and emotionally confused young woman that is a prerequisite for this kind of story. She also underlines some of Levinson’s limitations. She has a history of self-mutilation (a storyline that has become such a staple of American independent first features and Sundance titles it should be permanently banned as a plot device).
The tension becomes a little too predictable and overwrought, predicated on the natural rivalry between Lynn and her ex-husband’s controlling wife. (Levinson reveals which side he’s on by giving the second wife, a word, “irregardless,” that doesn’t exist.)
As the plot careens from one explosive confrontation to another, the movie never settles into a comfortable enough groove to allow the characterization and stories to develop either a livable interior space or real emotional tract. At those moments when it does try to get serious, dealing with Elliot’s addiction and depression, it seems fatally underdeveloped.
Likewise, some of the other formal elements Levinson introduces, like using a movie camera to tell part of the story, seems imported from too many other movies to register with any effectiveness on its own.
He needs more faith in his own characters and situations. He has a good eye (and ear) for casting. Miller, who is brilliant in Antonio Campos’s Afterschool and Lynn Ramsay’s forthcoming We Need to Talk about Kevin, is electrifying and compulsively watchable. I just wish the material were to his level.
Another Happy Day is a bit of a train wreck, weirdly compelling though never truly edifying or revealing enough to justify spending more time than necessary with the characters.