Running time 95 minutes
Written and directed by Mitchell Lichtenstein
Starring Demi Moore, Parker Posey, Rip Torn, Ellen Barkin
One star out of Four
The inmates are running a different kind of asylum in Happy Tears, a vulgar, happy-as-cancer aberration that takes the dysfunctional family idea to a new low. Whimsical, yes. Happy, never.
Two estranged sisters with nothing in common are forced to return to their seedy family home in Pittsburgh to deal with their father, who is suffering from advanced stages of Binswanger’s, a rare neurological disorder from which there is no cure. Jayne (Parker Posey) is an incompetent neurotic who can’t face reality on any level, and from her first scene, in which she spends thousands of dollars on a pair of knee-high, stiletto-heel leather boots from a shoe salesman who turns into a buzzard, there is some indication that Binswanger’s might be inherited. Her focused, take-charge older sister, Laura (Demi Moore), grapples with the problems of dealing with three kids and a gay husband while traveling around the country testing the quality of the local water supply. Both sisters once worked as strippers.
Joe, the senile father (played with maximum obscenity by a grotesque Rip Torn), is an incontinent old retired blues singer who sits half-naked at the kitchen table throwing up on himself. He is also being nursed (and ripped off) by a floozy named Shelly (Ellen Barkin), a sexy crackhead and check forger who wants her own piece of the hidden fortune the old geezer is rumored to have buried on the property. While they pretend to deal with real problems (selling the house, disposing of the contents in a yard sale, sending the old man to a nursing home), everyone gets waylaid by a script that is up to its imploding cerebellum in a dementia of its own. Laura spends her time dragging Joe from the table to clean up his very visibly soiled diapers. Jayne is married to Jackson (Christian Camargo), a rich California art dealer and would-be painter who slashes his wrists and paints canvases with his own blood. No wonder she talks to her sex organs and sees people disappear through patterns in the carpet. Shelly wears a stethoscope around her neck and eats with her bare hands while Joe tells his daughters, “She’s had two kids, but she’s still real tight.” For family bonding, they pile up in bed and watch The Mummy together. Later, the family photos turn into Boris Karloff.
Happy Tears was written and directed by Mitchell Lichtenstein, a memorable actor (Streamers, The Lords of Discipline) and an original thinker with a kinky sense of humor who has unfortunately developed no distinctive skills as a writer or director of substance. (His first feature, Teeth, was about a woman with teeth in her vagina.) He is also the son of renowned artist Roy Lichtenstein, and his mother did suffer from dementia, but he insists the film is not autobiographical and claims he did not base the character of Jackson on himself. This is probably true, since nothing in the film smacks of reality. Aside from Demi Moore’s grounded portrait of the world-weary Laura, nothing rings true. Everyone says and does freaky things, but nobody ever comes to life. Even the occasional attempt to focus leads to irrelevant gimmicks and distracting dream sequences: Shelly drinking Joe’s blood like a vampire; Jackson in a straitjacket, bouncing off the walls of a padded cell. During a discussion about long-term nursing, while the doctor is explaining Joe’s dementia, Jayne hears Hawaiian hula music. After a while, you stop scratching your head and start checking your watch. There’s a fine line between lovable eccentrics and certifiable lunatics. The twisted sisters in Happy Tears are not much fun as either.