Thought of fondly for 1998's The Opposite of Sex, writer/director Don Roos charts similar terrain of emotional subterfuge in Happy Endings and registers a surprising misfire. Where Sex was tart and taut, his new one is a messy, over-the-top triptych of tainted-love stories that's undone by its blind ambition.
In one plot thread, an abortion counselor (Lisa Kudrow) tries to learn the identity of the child she once gave up for adoption; to do so, she has to submit to the blackmail of a weaselly documentary filmmaker (Jesse Bradford). Meanwhile, her British stepbrother (Steve Coogan) and his boyfriend begin to suspect that two of their lesbian friends have used the boyfriend's sperm to birth their own child. And finally, a talentless wannabe vocalist (Maggie Gyllenhaal) worms her way into a mediocre nightclub act just in time to sleep with the group's gay drummer (Jason Ritter) and his widowed dad (Tom Arnold). Not content to merely ruin the fellas' personal lives, she also exerts a profound change on the band's creative direction. Under her stewardship, they go from being an innocuous stable of No Doubt-alikes to aping Blondie circa Eat to the Beat. You can't fight progress, I guess.
If it all sounds needlessly involved, be forewarned that the above thumbnail sketches only represent Stage One of the script's convolutions. Having whipped up three basic story ideas, any one of which could be the basis of a decent feature, Roos throws them all in together and gussies them up with preposterous complications (like a fabricated exposé of massage-studio gigolo-hood that Kudrow's character uses to bait her young tormentor). Snatches of clever dialogue float disconnectedly through Roos' ludicrous set pieces, leaving scene after scene to be narrowly redeemed by acting that's better than the film deserves. Gyllenhaal's spot-on shrew routine is the movie's most insightful portrayal; then again, If I want to see a conniving, off-key young woman fronting a semicompetent musical act, there are plenty of Orange Avenue clubs I can hang around.
In a misguided stab at narrative cohesion and/or maintaining an ironic outside voice Roos floods the screen with title cards that don't just tell us who the characters are, but where they come from, where they're going and (often) how we should feel about them. Rather than enhancing clarity, the effect is instead completely distracting. It's probably for the best that the technique has remained underemployed until now: "This is Charles Foster Kane. Pay close attention to his toys, because one of them is going to be extremely important later. By that time, he will have gotten extremely fat and turned into a world-class asshole." Doesn't quite have the same pull, does it? Maybe Roos should issue his next project as a flashcard set and bypass moviemaking entirely.
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