Back to the darkness of wedding-bell blues. Another Happy Day is another strained comedy about another dysfunctional family, but with some fine performances by a stellar ensemble of first-cabin performers that are definitely worth applauding. Despite the obvious comparisons to Jonathan Demme’s sprightly Rachel Getting Married, Noah Baumbach’s dreadful Margot at the Wedding and a dozen other movies about how weddings bring out the worst in everybody, this one does mark an auspicious feature debut by a very talented writer-director, Sam Levinson, whose career is totally worth keeping an eye on.
I tend to forget how marvelous Ellen Barkin can be until she gets the rare chance to pull out all the stops in a movie like this. She should work more often. In Another Happy Day, she plays Lynn, an affluent but deeply neurotic mother of four on the way to her parents’ Chesapeake Bay estate in Annapolis for the elaborate garden wedding of her eldest son, Dylan, whom she was never allowed to raise, with two of her younger boys by a second marriage in tow. Handsome, clean-cut Dylan (Michael Nardelli) is the sanest member of the family, which is probably why he has the smallest role in the picture, but which also explains the hurt Lynn feels for being denied the privilege of watching him grow up. Instead, her middle son, Elliot (Ezra Miller), is a 17-year-old drug addict with a chemical imbalance, Tourette’s disease and a fondness for wearing lipstick, who spends half his time getting thrown out of every important school in the country and the other half in rehab. Youngest son Ben (Daniel Yelsky), who has been diagnosed with autism and Asberger’s, has brought his video camera along and drives everyone crazy filming everything they say and do. Their father is Lee (Jeffrey DeMunn), an odd, retro character who lives in the past and loves Connie Francis records. Dylan and his sister, Alice (Kate Bosworth), have a different father, Paul (Thomas Haden Church), Lynn’s ex-husband, who is also coming to the wedding, to Lynn’s mounting horror, with his other children and his bitchy, resentful, emotionally charged second wife, Patty (Demi Moore). Everyone fears the worst from estranged, psychopathic daughter Alice, who has not seen Paul for seven years and is so severely manic-depressive she slices away at her body with a straight razor.
When this train wreck descends upon the family home, Lynn finds herself submerged in something not unlike EC comic books’ “Crypt of Terror,” surrounded by her two hateful sisters and their families, her own father, Joe (George Kennedy), a near-catatonic stroke victim with dementia who has to be watched carefully or he’ll wander off on the riding lawnmower into the unknown, and her mother, Doris (Ellen Burstyn), the long-suffering family matriarch who doesn’t like, trust or understand any of them. Elliot immediately steals his grandfather’s morphine and knocks himself out. During the rest of the weekend, tensions erupt and old animosities surface, leading to panic attacks and fist fights, while the irritating brat Ben gets it all on camera. Skeletons come piling out of the closets as an army of tertiary characters implode and the audience tries to figure out why they are so unhinged, angry and self-destructive in the first place. You get a gumbo of confusion about Paul and Patty, who raised Dylan but turned their backs on Alice, first and second husbands of Lynn’s, older and younger children by Paul and Lynn, two younger children by Lee, and Alice, who doesn’t fit in anywhere. With all the siblings, stepchildren, in-laws and cousins, it’s hard to keep them straight. These are the kind of people who meet life’s most traumatic challenges with “Whatever.” Eventually, their whining insecurities take their toll and you find it difficult to care about any of them.
Characters jump through a few of the predictable hoops we’ve come to expect from this genre. The wedding scene itself drags, and since I didn’t really find any of the characters lovable, I couldn’t wait for it to end, but even when the movie lags, you can’t look away or you’ll miss something vital in the quality of Ms. Barkin’s polished, quirky performance. Fortunately, Mr. Levinson is a careful writer-director, his dialogue is fresh enough to keep things moving (Elliot, describing his grandpa: “He watches Fox News while he sleeps—that’s like the textbook definition of zombie”), and he wisely gives each of his actors a moving monologue or a similar moment of depth that serves as a mirror to their characters’ souls. He paints them neither black nor white but honest and believable, fleshing out the gray in between. Ms. Burstyn reveals so much truth in her eyes that she is riveting, even when she isn’t even speaking. The family dynamics in the story end up stronger than the occasional speed bumps in the script and the good work outweighs the imperfections. It’s good to see so much talent and feeling in one movie, and Another Happy Day has plenty of it.
ANOTHER HAPPY DAY
Running Time 119 minutes
Written and directed by Sam Levinson
Starring Ellen Barkin, Ezra Miller and Kate Bosworth