Actor Josh Radnor has decided to take a dip in the writer/director pool. Previously known for his role as Ted Mosby, the hopelessly romantic protagonist on How I Met Your Mother, and as a member of Not Another Teen Movie‘s ensemble, he’s come up with a twee comedy-drama called happythankyoumoreplease. Despite that terrible title, and some overly precious trappings, it’s a respectable debut feature.
Like so many American independent films, it’s focused on a group of 20something New Yorkers on the verge of… something, though none of them knows precisely what. Folksy acoustic songs play as they exchange long, subtext-heavy glances while sitting in bars, and say things that are just a little too on the nose to be entirely believable. Annie (Malin Akerman), congenitally hairless as well as sassy (is “bald and sassy” the new “fat and sassy”?) is on the verge of tears during one scene, and exasperated with her friends. She sums up: “I’m so sick of all this optimism, it’s exhausting.”
Annie’s sounding board is Sam Wexler (Radnor) a struggling, self-sabotaging writer, whom Annie, with a straight face, refers to as “the voice of our generation.” On the way to the biggest interview of his life, Sam encounters a small African American boy, Rasheen (Michael Algieri), who has been separated from his foster family in the middle of the morning rush. Because Sam is essentially a child (you often wonder how he is able to support himself), the two bond, and, after using Rasheen to pick up a girl named Mississippi (Kate Mara), Sam lets his new acquaintance crash on his couch for a few days. You can’t imagine how this situation might go downhill, can you?
In addition to Sam’s predicament with Rasheen, who can’t be convinced to go home no matter how hard Sam tries, happythankyoumoreplease delivers a collection of ambling episodic asides. Annie is pursued by a lawyer played by Tony Hale of Arrested Development fame, who only wants her to let herself be loved because she deserves it. And Sam’s cousin Mary Catherine (Zoe Kazan) is dating Charlie (Pablo Schreiber), who wants to move to Los Angeles, but Mary Catherine doesn’t want to leave New York because L.A. is so fake and New York is so real. They all bob aimlessly through their daily lives, trying to figure out the answers to important questions, like what it is that they’re even trying to figure out.
With the exception of Sam, no one’s distracted by too much plot. Instead, they veer into clichés (Mary Catherine is a painter, Annie’s ex is in a band) or engage in quirky activities, like staging “alopecia awareness” parties and drunkenly discussing Woody Allen without actually saying his name. In fact, the suburban white kid suddenly confronted by the real world represented by a black child is a tired bit in itself.
But even if it appears that Sam’s difficult decision—what to do with Rasheen—is the first one in his life with consequence, their scenes together make happythankyoumoreplease worth watching. Turning Rasheen over to the proper authorities will only send him back into an ambiguously threatening situation (something bad is going on, but it is unclear what), but Sam is woefully ill equipped to look after a child. When the movie focuses on this story, it maintains momentum and purpose, especially when compared to the slower, less compelling side stories featuring Annie and Mary Catherine’s more mundane, underdeveloped choices. Will Annie choose the man who will be good for her and give her what she needs, but isn’t immediately attractive? Will Mary Catherine have the courage to tell Charlie the truth, or will she let their relationship crumble out of sheer stubbornness? Again, the women’s stories revolve around men.
All these choices make happythankyoumoreplease mostly earnest. Sam is at last astute enough to recognize that his situation might not be so bad after all, and that people have it much worse (thank you, Rasheen). His education proves engaging enough to separate the film from the recent herd of eccentric indies, primarily because of the cast’s strong performances, especially 10-year-old Algieri. He has just a handful of lines, but a terrifically expressive face.
And, though Radnor has been fun and charming as an actor before, here he displays a new emotional range. When playing catch in a park with Rasheen, Sam receives news that may be a deathblow to his chosen career. In the span of a brief moment, he goes from enjoying a sunny afternoon, to having his dreams crushed, to bottling his emotions, to a small-scale eruption of disappointment and rage. Give him some time, a little more plot, and fewer clichés, and Radnor is going to make some wonderful films.