Based on true events in the early life of its writer-director, Adam Sherman, a depressing little indie-prod called Happiness Runs is about life on a hippie commune in the 1960s, and the destructive effect of hedonistic parents on children who are forced to raise themselves. Mr. Sherman is portrayed as a teenager named Victor (Mark L. Young, a veteran of the TV shows Six Feet Under, The O.C. and Big Love), who comes of age under the depraved guidance of the cult’s guru (Rutger Hauer) and spends every waking moment trying to escape.
The cult is a tantric guild of communal living described by its polygamous guru as “a historical phenomenon” in a sick society, comparing it with Christianity in ancient Rome. A magnet for the lost, homeless and abused, all seeking peace and purity, the commune is a haven for people seeking freedom from materialism, want, hate, violence, jealousy and possessiveness. Everyone sleeps together and gives birth to one another’s babies, and the children, who are never supposed to grow up, are surrounded and enveloped in a life of endless drugs and free sex, schooled at home without responsibility or discipline. Most of them don’t know who their parents are, but all of their mothers have sex with the guru, who is manipulative, seductive and self-serving, controlling everyone in his power. The children, stoned and bored and running wild without supervision, begin to suspect Utopia is flawed. Victor finally reaches the age when he sees through the sham, but his addicted, self-deluded mother (Andie McDowall, who should stick to shampoo commercials) refuses to give him the money to run away, saving her once-healthy bank account for the guru, who has brainwashed her into signing over all of her assets. What could be sadder than aging flower children without flowers?
As the film builds to a feverish hysteria, you have to work hard to keep from laughing.
Victor’s frustration is compounded by the return of his girlfriend, Becky (Hanna Hall), who comes back to the cult to care for a father with terminal cancer. While Victor fights to hold on to his sanity, Becky escapes in a different way—becoming the promiscuous communal whore. Doomed to repeat their parents’ mistakes, the younger generation wakes up every morning in a different bed, numbed by a haze of alcohol, marijuana and ecstasy. For kicks, they drive to a nearby pasture, pour gasoline on a sleeping cow and set it on fire. The chief perpetrator insists, “Innocent murderers go free every day of the week. Everybody eats tortured, cooked cows every day. So what? I burned a cow, so what?” Becky swoons, “You made me so hot when you did it.”
As the film builds to a feverish hysteria, you have to work hard to keep from laughing. Victor finally escapes and moves to Hollywood to make movies, but first there’s beaucoup nudity, insanity, hallucinogenic mushrooms, self-mutilation with razor blades and suicide. O.K., life without structure or purpose leads to disillusionment and angst, but we knew that already. I’ll be darned if I know what deeper lesson we’re supposed to learn after suffering through 88 minutes of misery. Don’t raise your children in a commune? Duh. The struggle of the individual against the collective is a worthy theme, but the dismal Happiness Runs—amateurishly directed, clumsily written and choppily edited—lacks form and takes on the look and feel of personal therapy at the audience’s expense. Sometimes a filmmaker’s private hell is better off left behind the closed door of an analyst’s office.
3 Eyeballs out of 4
Running time: 88 minutes
Written and directed by: Adam Sherman
Starring: Mark L. Young, Rutger Hauer, Andie McDowall, Hanna Hall
1 Eyeball out of 4