“What exactly am I watching?”
Every so often, there is a movie which causes you to ask the question over and over and over again. “What is this?” “What am I seeing?” “What?” “How?” “Huh?” All too often, those questions result from the movie in question being bad (or at least grossly disappointing). Every once in a while though it’s because the movie is jaw-droppingly enjoyable.
From writer/director BenDavid Grabinski, “Happily” tells the story of one couple, Peter (Joel McHale) and Janet (Kerry Bishé). Although the two have been married for 14 years, they still are desperately attracted to each other and hopelessly in love. Problems between the two are sorted quickly, apologies are made, and resentment doesn’t linger in the air. They are in fact so happy that they are uninvited from a couples’ weekend their friends are having… no one wants to deal with their unnatural level of happiness.
Naturally, this results in a dead body.
No, of course, it’s not natural that it results in a dead body, but it feels right for this movie. It’s not natural that they would be excised from this group of couples. It’s not natural that they would be informed as much over a dinner with the returning of their deposit on the house. It’s not natural that they would be reinvited. It’s not natural that they’d go. It’s not natural that the house they’re staying at for the weekend would have a gun room.
The movie doesn’t work because Grabinski and the cast—which includes Natalie Morales, Jon Daly, Paul Scheer, Breckin Meyer, Natalie Zea, Kirby Howell-Baptiste, Shannon Woodward, Charlyne Yi, and Stephen Root—make any of it seem natural, but rather (in part) because they point out the absurdities of it all. Peter and Janet not being able to keep their hands off each other is weird. Them deciding to go on the weekend after being reinvited is weird. The gun room is weird. Characters in the film acknowledge this stuff; they point it out; and even if they don’t move past it, they do keep going. The whole movie keeps going, piling weirdness on top of weirdness in some sort of absurd game – seeing how much can be stacked up before it all topples over. Happily for “Happily,” it never does.
That cast represents a solid lineup of very funny individuals. Even if (some of) the roles they take on here aren’t particularly amusing, they are all wholly compelling. It’s a large cast for a 90 minute movie, but everyone has something going on in their lives, and each person (and couple) is made to feel distinct. Morales, Bishé, and McHale are the best, but Zea, Scheer, Daly, and Yi are not far behind (no one is). And now that I said that, I feel bad that I left out Al Madrigal from the above list of cast members. He’s not in more than a handful of scenes, but he’s great.
As we see from the beginning of the movie, Grabinski is not merely content to offer up the peculiar narrative by itself. The camera work and the music and the various sound effects all play into it. We get multiple shots of the driveway gate at the rented house opening and closing, we get weird shots of Janet’s dreams, we get shots that appear to be mini dolly zooms as Peter and Janet wake up in the morning. Cell phone ringing is turned up to ear-piercingly loud levels to shock the viewer from a quieter moment. Lights emanate from a briefcase in Tarantino fashion. The whole time, we sit there and try to figure out what we’re watching, what it all means.
Heck, we sit there and just try to figure out the genre, only to realize that it’s a dark sci-fi horror dramatic sex comedy. All these elements are pulled into “Happily” and rather than dissolving into some sort of disastrous mess, they work together beautifully.
If I have beat around the bush somewhat at the specifics of the plot here, that’s only because it would take too much time to explain, you might not believe me if I did, and it would certainly ruin things. “Happily” is a tremendous movie, but one you want to go into knowing as little as possible about in terms of the story. What you should know is that it’s not just excellently constructed, it’s excellently executed. It is clever and stylish and super fun in a very disturbing sort of way.
photo credit: Saban Films