Many 'Happy' Returns

Javier (Bobby Cannavale) and Mamie (Lisa Kudrow) are secret lovers in
Javier (Bobby Cannavale) and Mamie (Lisa Kudrow) are secret lovers in "Happy Endings." (By Eric Lee)

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By Michael O'Sullivan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, July 15, 2005

IT'S HARD to know where to begin with "Happy Endings," except, I guess, at the beginning, which is also pretty much the movie's ending.

Boom. We open on a woman, Mamie (Lisa Kudrow), in obvious distress, running down the street. Suddenly she darts into the path of an oncoming SUV, which brakes, but not before throwing her bloody body from the hood of the car to the pavement.

Ah, but: "She's not dead."

Those are the next words that appear on screen, in the first of what will be many, maaany more silent-movie-style on-screen titles, most of which not only prove riotously entertaining but also very useful in identifying the characters who have just entered the frame, or their innermost thoughts, or something that has already happened to them, or that is going to happen to them long after the movie is over, or what one of them knows or doesn't know, or how they're related to each other and whether they're lying.

Trust me. You're going to appreciate this information delivery system after a while. Especially the part about the lying, since in the two intervening hours between the opening car accident and the closing one -- actually the same accident, since everything in the film, which is like one giant flashback, leads up to it by way of explanation -- there's a lot of lying.

There's the young gay man, Otis (Jason Ritter), who hasn't come out yet to his father (Tom Arnold). Then there's the lesbian couple (Laura Dern and Sarah Clarke) who may or may not have lied about the identity of their son's sperm donor, who may or may not be the boyfriend of Mamie's step-brother, Charley (Steve Coogan), a man who resorts to fibbing about his partner, Gil (David Sutcliffe), having an incurable hereditary disease in order to extract a confession from the child's mothers. Oh, and let's not forget the aspiring filmmaker (Jesse Bradford) who blackmails Mamie about a youthful indiscretion of hers (okay, it's a lot more than an indiscretion) to get her to agree to help him make a fake documentary about her secret lover-masseur (Bobby Cannavale), who also happens to be an illegal Mexican immigrant.

But the biggest liar in the bunch is Jude (Maggie Gyllenhaal), a conniving, manipulative gold-digger who first sleeps with Otis -- that's right, the gay kid -- then his wealthy father, initially as a way of amusing herself, but ultimately to avoid ever having to get a day job. As Mary McCarthy famously said of Lillian Hellman, every word Jude says is a lie, including "and" and "the."

Let's see. Have I forgotten anyone? You bet I have, but they give me only so much space to write here, and I want to leave a little bit unsaid about this strange and ineffable film, whose central story line has to do with a mother's search for the child she gave up for adoption many years ago, but which crosses many other paths in the telling.

Complicated? Yes. Potentially heavy? Sure. But it's also highly engrossing and, in a dark way, ultimately rather sweet. Written and directed by Don Roos ("The Opposite of Sex" and "Bounce"), "Happy Endings" actually has almost as many unhappy endings as happy ones, but that seems to me to be about on a par with life.

It isn't really about endings or beginnings anyway, but about the connective tissue between them -- and us -- and what constitutes a family. "She's a mother," says Charley to Gil about Dern's character in one of the film's typically twisted laugh lines. "It's a sick, sick bond."

Yes, it is, I suppose. But it's no sicker (and no less funny) than the ones that keep getting all the rest of us stuck to each other, too.

HAPPY ENDINGS (R, 130 minutes) -- Contains obscenity, sex, nudity, brief violence and drug use. Area theaters.


© 2005 The Washington Post Company

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