Dir/scr. Don Roos. US. 2004. 128mins
A full seven years since making a splash at Sundance as a filmmaking debutant, Don Roos returns to Park City with this year's opening night attraction. Happy Endings, his third directorial outing, promises a benign beginning to the Park City festivities, if only because few can be offended by this merry, multi-storied meditation on what it means to be deep-down happy in today's complicated times. The end result may not be an entirely happy mish-mash of piercing comedy and mushy pathos, but there are enough charged moments, scurrilous situations and appealing performances across its large ensemble and three interwoven narratives to keep the indie mainstream entertained.
Commercially speaking, there is also enough of Roos' acerbic wit and transgressive attitude for Lions Gate to be able to market this as a naughty follow-up to his directorial breakout, The Opposite Of Sex. In truth, however, the gleeful tartness that gave his 1998 debut its distinctive edge - winning a healthy indie following in English-speaking territories as well as markets such as Germany - has been sublimated, even softened in the intervening years. Showing through here is some of that same sincere poignancy that marked Roos' surprisingly unironic second film, Bounce, whose stars Ben Affleck and Gwyneth Paltrow were the chief reasons behind its $36m North American gross.
Without such similarly big marquee names, question remains whether the generous-hearted spirit of Happy Endings can leave the same impression on the box office as the taboo-puncturing outrageousness that gave The Opposite Of Sex its media-ready theatrical hook. In the current blasphemy-averse climate, quite possibly.
As it happens, Paltrow was originally set to play the most memorable role in Happy Endings before personal circumstances intervened. Her involvement, and maybe that of her briefly-intended replacement Jennifer Garner, would certainly have elevated the theatrical profile of this film. And yet it is difficult to imagine how either of them could have invested the character of Jude - a conniving sexual predator who ends up heartbroken - with as much mischief and melancholy as Gyllenhaal conjures here. Her singing alone in this film will finally liberate her screen persona from the bonds of her Sundance breakthrough performance in Secretary.
Gyllenhaal's Jude invites comparisons with Christina Ricci's teenage firebrand who used her sexuality to devastating effect in The Opposite Of Sex, wantonly seducing all who lay in her path. Like Deedee in that film, Gyllenhaal thinks nothing of sleeping with a gay man - even turning over onto her front to avoid any mammarian distractions that might preclude his carnal enjoyment - if this will help her secure a place to sleep for the night. The main difference is that while sassy Deedee was the satirical driving force behind The Opposite Of Sex, constantly goading the audience with her snide voice-over quips, the self-possessed Jude is just one of ten lead characters in Happy Endings. This cross-section of Los Angeles suburbia runs the fabulous gamut from blackmailing filmmakers and pleasure-giving masseurs to over-controlling lesbian parents.
Although there are no voice-overs this time, Roos sticks with the self-conscious narration technique via the intrusion of title-cards that provide a good-humoured running commentary on the proceedings while at the same time toying with our expectations of movie conventions. Unduly text-heavy at times, even for this multimedia era, the barrage of information does at least steer the audience through the multitude of storylines, providing a puckish point of view for gauging these somewhat sad and disparate lives.
The common link between the stories is Lisa Kudrow, reprising some of the emotionally-withdrawn characteristics of her acclaimed performance in The Opposite Of Sex.
It turns out she had a baby with her British stepbrother while she was very young but gave it up for adoption. 19 years later, she is approached by a young filmmaker (Jesse Bradford) ready to divulge his whereabouts but only on the condition that he can document her reunion on camera. She has a better idea: why not make his student film on her current boyfriend (Bobby Cannavale), a Mexican immigrant who provides massage therapy and perhaps the odd happy ending to married women of means. The filmmaker complies, but ends up spilling more beans than intended.
Meanwhile, Kudrow's stepbrother (British comedian Steve Coogan) is now in a contented, committed relationship with his live-in boyfriend. Content, that is, until he suspects that their best friends, a female couple (Laura Dern and Sarah Clarke), have been nursing a dark secret. Their adorable two-year-old son looks awfully like his boyfriend: Could they have used his boyfriend's sperm bank deposit without telling them'
At work, one of Coogan's male colleagues has a secret crush on him - but his young admirer doesn't want to reveal his gay identity, least of all to his rich father, a straight-laced widower who is portrayed to guileless perfection by Tom Arnold. Into their lives steps Jude, who beds the son to provide him with a heterosexual cover and then promptly jumps on dad with a view to his wealth, or at least his car keys. Who knew that she would end up falling for his honest-to-goodness decency' Shame she tricked him.
Needless to say, with a title such as Happy Endings, nothing pans out quite as expected - although most of these compassionate storylines find varying degrees of resolution, if not happiness. Like the instant gratification offered by Cannavale on the massage table, this film may be not provide enough emotional satisfaction to sustain a long-term relationship at the box office. But its stellar cast and amiable sensibility, plus a couple of laugh-out-loud scenes, certainly assures Happy Endings a juicy money-shot on the small screen.
Prod co: Lions Gate Films, Stratus Film Co
Intl sales: Lions Gate International
US dist: Lions Gate Releasing
Exec prods: Mike Elliot, Tom Ortenberg, Nick Meyer
Prods: Holly Wiersma, Michael Paseornek
Cine: Clark Mathis
Ed: David Codron
Prod des: Richard Sherman
Main cast: Tom Arnold, Jesse Bradford, Bobby Cannavale, Sarah Clarke, Steve Coogan, Laura Dern, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Lisa Kudrow, Jason Ritter, David Sutcliffe