'Happy Endings' opens with a woman getting barreled over by a car, cuts to a scene depicting adolescent incest, then works its way through blackmail, abortion, love, sex, homosexuality and restraining orders spawned by suspicions over artificial insemination, all perpetrated by an unpredictable ensemble of dysfunctional characters who share an affinity for royally mucking up their lives and those of everyone around them in way that would never even occur to most of us.
Oh yeah, and it's a comedy.
Indie auteur Don Roos has made a name for himself chronicling the fits and foibles of sex, secrets, love, family and the wild, chaotic unpredictability of life. His characters have an uncanny affinity for seeking out and making the worst possible choices under moments of stress, typically triggering monumental messes that manage to badly botch things up for everyone involved. They're the relatives we don't talk about in polite company but love anyway, the (usually) well-intentioned screw-ups who do things we'd (of course) never do, the people who constantly prove that although or maybe even because life is a tangled mess, it's oddly beautiful.
But as Roos's films have a way of pointing out, there's a plethora of dysfunction along the way. A teenage indiscretion with her stepbrother Charley (Steve Coogan) left Mamie (Lisa Kudrow) with a son. She gave him up for adoption back then, but now wannabe filmmaker Nicky (Jesse Bradford) is using him as blackmail to get a documentary out of the story. Fortunately, Mamie's masseuse Javier (Bobby Cannavale) gives happy endings on the side, and an immigrant sex worker is much more interesting subject.
In another part of town, Charley's been fixed, but his live-in boyfriend Gil (David Sutcliffe) donated sperm to best friend Pam (Laura Dern) and her lesbian lover Diane (Sarah Clarke), who say it didn't take, but now have a baby that looks suspiciously like Gil. Meanwhile, free-spirited Jude (Maggie Gyllenhaal) works her magic on Otis (Jason Ritter) he's gay, but she's that good then sets her sights on his widowed father Frank (Tom Arnold), or at least his money. Love was never part of the plan.
But plans like the characters in the film are fickle things, and soon the lying, cheating, stealing, blackmailing, squabbling folks of 'Happy Endings' are crossing paths and wreaking havoc in each others' lives as Roos deftly weaves the various storylines together with the quirkily chaotic rhythms of life itself. Taking his novelistic approach further than ever, Roos uses split screens and title cards to provide a sort of running comedic commentary, making quips and helping introduce the characters with snarky flair. The device helps him maintain the breezy pacing without becoming intrusive, and Roos lets his actors do the rest.
These characters might be villains in the hands of another director, but Roos's genuine love for them, along with the outstanding performances of the ensemble cast, makes them strikingly human. The acting is superb across the board, but Gyllenhaal is flat out amazing. Her Jude is a sultry charmer with a singing voice to match, and when her vulnerability finally peeks though, it seems to catch Jude as off-guard as us. Her last scenes with Frank are a gut-wrenchingly nuanced reminder of how fleeting redemption can be.
Both heartbreaking and hilarious, 'Happy Endings' is a witty critique of this crazy world and its even crazier inhabitants, but it's also an affirmation sans sugary coating. Roos has a way of gently as opposed to Todd Solodz ('Palindromes') slap in the face method turning a mirror on our society. People will screw up, the happy ending may not be what we'd expected or hoped for, and life will probably remain as whimsically erratic as ever but at least Don Roos is there to keep things in perspective.