`Happy Endings' bogs down in relationships


July 15, 2005|By Michael Sragow | Michael Sragow,SUN MOVIE CRITIC

Writer-director Don Roos (1998's The Opposite of Sex) suffers from fallen archness in his interminable new movie Happy Endings.

He wants to be mischievous and ambitious and "human," all at the same time. He ends up with delusions of tragicomic grandeur that leave an audience fed up and dissatisfied.

He got a funny performance out of Lisa Kudrow in The Opposite of Sex, and she retains her salty sanity as Mamie, an L.A. abortion-clinic patient's representative who's having an affair with a masseuse (Bobby Cannavale). Even Kudrow can't energize this wayward narrative about a woman who got pregnant by her stepbrother as a teen, and at the last minute chose giving the baby up for adoption rather than abortion.

The whole movie is a frantic farrago about issues of birth and parentage. An ambitious candidate for the American Film Institute (Jesse Bradford) knows Mamie's now-grown baby and tries to use that knowledge to blackmail her into becoming the subject of a documentary film. Instead, she redirects him toward making a movie about her lover-masseuse as a "sex worker" who specializes in massages with "happy endings" - referring not to adoption, but to the "complete release" offered by an extra-special rubdown. (He isn't a sex worker, and he doesn't specialize in that act, but he'll pretend he does for Bradford's "documentary.")

Meanwhile, Mamie's stepbrother Charley (Steve Coogan), now a restaurateur and gay, convinces his lover Gil (David Sutcliffe) that their lesbian buddies (Laura Dern and Sarah Clarke) used Gil's sperm to produce their baby. Charley's employee, Otis (Jason Ritter), who lusts for his boss to no avail, gives a sexy young singer named Jude (Maggie Gyllenhaal) a place in his rock band. She convinces Otis' dad (Tom Arnold) that his son's not gay - and then moves on to seduce the father, ensuring a cushy existence until she refuses to use pregnancy as a bartering point or a proof of her sincerity.

The movie attempts to restore to a chic, liberal, fluid art-house world a notion of how crucial every life-decision is - especially the decision to bring life into the world. But Roos rests this effort on a rocky combination of farcical coincidence, conversation-stopping revelations borne of videotape (homages, perhaps, to sex, lies, and videotape), and observational humor that wouldn't pass muster on open-mike night at a comedy club. Roos' riffs on clean-living, sugar-loathing lesbians are particularly moldy.

Roos uses a flash-forward of an accident to hook an audience. Then he employs title cards to time-hop and to fill in the blanks of his characters. Yet his words prove more facetious than witty - when one card announces that Charley "is now gay. Who isn't?" - the joke seems so stupid and presumptuous and dated, so pre-Will & Grace. Roos does cook up some funky chemistry between Bradford, whose ambition seems inseparable from arousal, and Kudrow, who falls for his inner helplessness.

The scene-stealer, though, is Gyllenhaal, who has the moxie to show that a girl can enjoy sex as manipulation and as lovemaking and the skill to depict the difference. Her Jude is Roos' most daring creation, a worldly user who is herself badly used yet ends up a dazzling romantic. When she sings, what pours out is what the desiccated heart of this movie sorely needs: a blasting freshet of undiluted emotion.

Happy Endings

Starring Lisa Kudrow, Bobby Cannavale, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Laura Dern, Jesse Bradford, Tom Arnold

Directed by Don Roos

Released by Fox Searchlight

Rated R

Time 125 minutes

Sun Score *1/2 (1 half star)

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