Happy Endings (2005)

Cynthia Fuchs

Happy Endings begins with what seems quite an unhappy ending, when Mamie (Lisa Kudrow) is hit by a car.

Happy Endings

Director: Don Roos
Cast: Lisa Kudrow, Tom Arnold, Steve Coogan, Jesse Bradford, Bobby Cannavale, Laura Dern, Jason Litter, David Sutcliffe, Sarah Clarke, Maggie Gyllenhaal
MPAA rating: R
Studio: Lions Gate
First date: 2005
US Release Date: 2005-07-15 (Limited release)

Happy Endings begins with what seems quite an unhappy ending, when Mamie (Lisa Kudrow) is hit by a car. She's running from something, or someone, the camera cutting fast to keep up with her panic, close on her face, then the back of her head, her flailing limbs. She barrels down a grassy hill, lands in the street, and -- whap -- she's hit, thrown into the air and onto the pavement.

It's a startling couple of minutes. And then, it's over. A split screen shows text explaining that Mamie's okay, that no one dies in this film because it's a comedy, and that "what happens next happened 20 years ago." Cut back to Mamie as a teenager (Hallee Hirsh), about to seduce her British stepbrother Charley (Eric Jungmann, who will grow up to be Steve Coogan). "He's a virgin," the text in the side-frame reads, "for 10 more minutes."

Repeatedly, this split-screen device serves a function similar to Christina Ricci's sardonic voiceover in Roos' The Opposite of Sex, a film this one resembles in theme and structure (and really, this film is not so fresh as the first, and its polish is sometimes too slick). That is, the text provides running snark on events, characters, and the very idea of storytelling. Wait a minute, the narration reminds you, don't think you understand exactly what you're looking at. Pay close attention, and consider your part in this process.

Mamie's story -- the part that comes before the accident and will eventually follow it -- is initiated with this act and the resulting pregnancy. Details drop out when you learn she's been sent away to have an abortion; "Charley will stay behind," you read, and then, 19 years later, they're both adults: he's gay and she's a counselor at a Los Angeles abortion clinic. During her off hours, she's seeing a "Mexican" masseuse and illegal immigrant named Javier (Bobby Cannavale, whose accent is just silly). They enjoy acting out scenarios -- she visits him at work, he seduces her sort of illicitly ("Trust my fingers"), they imagine they're living on some sort of edge, risking his job, maybe her solid citizen rep. They act out here, the other sort of "happy ending," one they can repeat and restage as many times as they want.

So far, so banal. But within minutes, the conclusion you've drawn is undone. Mamie is visited by Nicky (Jesse Bradford), an aspiring AFI student who brings news: her child, now a young adult, is alive and well in Phoenix. He wants to provide her with the crucial info, then film the reunion with her son for his submission film ("I need a killer film"). This intrusion (Mamie calls it "blackmail," and indeed, Nicky threatens to reveal the truth to Charley, who believes she had the abortion) inspires Mamie to a series of responses, first to outrage. "This is a human being you're talking about," she says of the son who has not indicated any interest in meeting her. "Yeah," sneers Nicky, reading her all wrong, "that you gave away." She marches off, only to return, with a story of her own. She concocts a narrative for Javier to recount, even purchasing elaborate camera and editing equipment for Nicky's use. Believing that Javier has a lurid alien's story, and a "sex worker's" take to boot, complete with a marriage rigged to get a green card, Nicky "lets" Mamie manipulate him, taping Javier's cheesy tales of woe and finagling, even as Mamie begins to imagine she's falling for Nicky.

At the same time, Charley is confronting (or creating) his own crisis. Seemingly happy with his boyfriend Gil (David Sutcliffe), he notices that the new infant belonging to their best friends Pam (Laura Dern) and Diane (Sarah Clarke, a.k.a. 24's Nina) looks like baby pictures of Gil. Since the women had long ago tried to get pregnant with Gil's sperm, then supposedly changed their minds, Charley believes they've used the store of sperm they had without permission or Gil's knowledge, in order to avoid legal or emotional ties in the future.

Meanwhile, Charley's employee, a closeted wannabe rock drummer named Otis (Jason Ritter), has developed a crush on him, borrowing security tapes of Charley mopping the kitchen floor in order to masturbate at home. Living at home with his dad Frank (Tom Arnold), Otis believes he has to be straight. His closeting is hardly successful, however. "Why do you think he's a drummer," one of his bandmates jokes to another, "So he can look at our asses all night." And so he brings the band to the house to rehearse and talk cocky stuff. One evening, they recruit a new singer, Jude (Maggie Gyllenhaal), whom Otis hears singing at Charley's club, and she seduces Otis, promising that it will soothe his dad ("You totally owe me, dude. He does not think you're a homo anymore"). Besides, she offers, "You should try it. You might not be who you think you are." Indeed, this might serve as mantra for the film, as no one is quite that.

What Jude really means to get, though, is access to dad, lonely and easy, and oh yes, wealthy. Her story runs closest to that of Ricci's Dede. Conniving, seemingly heartless, she's willing to seduce father and son, in the same house, to get what she thinks she wants. Jude's idea of a happy ending contradicts the typical sense of same: she wants to win, cheating and abusing trust, and maybe, when convenient, provide small, brief pleasures for her needy men. But she also serves as the film's other framing device, alongside the textual comments. When she first sings for Otis, she's angry at another boy, a cheater, and performs Billy Joel's "Honesty," plaintively, heart-wrenchingly. At film's end, when Mamie's been hit by the car, Charley and Gil have faced a calamity, and Frank has found Jude out (for how could he not?), she sings again, now cast apart from the group of other characters gathered at Charley's club. In this other, unidentified space, she sings another Joel anthem, "Just the Way You Are," another plea for truth and a happy ending. Without context, she's unreadable. And so her plea remains just that.

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Why filmmaking as a means of expression? Was there an inspirational or defining moment?

Not really, no. I have always done documentary. I used to write scripts and TV series but I only make documentaries myself for radio and television. For this story, I figured out after a while that it deserved a bigger ambition and a bigger screen and that's why I don't very much believe in inspiration. To be honest, I made this film because I had to do something. I didn't have a big project where I thought: I want to make this. I went there and I found a little money and at the end the ambition and the inspiration came along the way. But there was not an urgent necessity to make this film. It fits with a lot of things that I'm interested in, like popular culture -- What does art stand for and why do we go to the cinema? What is the purpose? This is a question I'm interested in, but inspiration, not so much.

Has The Prince of Nothingwood provided you with the answers to those questions?

It has, and I hope it helps people to think about this question. It tells you that there is an urgent need to make images, to make films, even during war,and even if you don't have the money. And even if the films are not very good, they will find somebody who will like them. So something is going to happen, and I think that's very touching. I don't like Shaheen's films, I hardly watched them -- I paid somebody to watch them. But I'm very moved by all these people that do like his films, and it makes you think about the value of art and the purpose of why we make cinema. I used to study aesthetics in London, so it was one of the questions I had and while the film is lighter than this, that's what was in mind.

The film uses Shaheen as a doorway, beginning as a story about one man which becomes a story about Afghanistan, its people and culture.

Yeah, but it's not so much about Afghanistan and it's not my purpose is to say things about the country. There's one guy like him in Iran who makes cowboy movies in the Iranian desert and there's also a guy like that in Tunisia. I mean you have this person with an urgent need to film whatever they have under their hand and since it's war, then it tells you something about the war. But it's not so much interested in him.

There was a lot of editing, 148 hours that you haven't seen [laughs]. Making a documentary is really telling a story and I don't have any idea of objectivity -- it is my point of view on Shaheen. Some people say to me that they would like to show his films, that they really want to see his films, and I say: "You don't see how much I have edited. I show you the very nice parts of his films." People think he's a great filmmaker and that's the story I wanted to tell -- but I could have told another story.

To my mind, objectivity is a human construct, a falsity that does not exist.

Except mathematics maybe, and sometimes physics.

The purist opinion of documentary as objective is therein built on a faulty premise. From the subjective choices of the filmmakers that bleed into the film to the subjectivity of the subjects, it's not purely objective. Hence, it calls into question the traditional dividing line of the objectivity of documentary and the subjectivity of narrative fiction.

Totally! It's the editing, and why you chose this guy, how you film it and what you show, or what you don't show. It's not only subjectivity, it's storytelling. Not many people ask me about this, they take it for granted that it's the real Shaheen. But I'm not lying, I'm not saying things that aren't true, but I am telling a story, a fictional story out of what I filmed. I took scenes that happened one day and I put them with another story that happened three months later and that's why we had seven months of editing with three editors. So it was a lot of work.

One of the striking aspects of the film are the light and comedic moments offset by a darker and heavier sensibility, which include moments when, for example, Shaheen talks about arranged marriages.

We made 70rough cuts and there was one version we tested and you couldn't believe you were in Afghanistan. People would say: "Oh this is too funny. You don't see Afghanistan, it's just a bunch of crazy guys." I then said: "Let's put in a little more darkness." You then have to strike a balance and to me, if it's not perfect, I'm happy.

Shooting the film in a dangerous and volatile part of the world, was the approach that once you had enough footage you then looked to shaping the film in the edit?

It's not when you feel you have enough, it's finding a balance between security and artistic concerns. That's it. You have a plan and you have an agenda. There are things you want to do, but it has to be balanced with security concerns. The real story I was going to tell about Shaheen I found in the editing room and in the end, I only kept five days of the shoot. The whole film takes place in Bamyan (Province), nothing in Kabul, although I had weeks and weeks of footage there that I had to take away.

There's a moment when Shaheen asks if you are scared, which sees him verbalise our silent recognition of your boldness and courage to bring this story to the screen.

It's very difficult and it's not like you are walking in the street and there's a bomb. This is not what's difficult. The difficulty is to cope with your fear and to have rules and to follow or to not follow those rules. There are many foreign people that never go out at all in Kabul -- it is forbidden. You have British diplomats who do not even drive their car from the airport to the embassy -- they will take an helicopter that costs £2,000 each way. Then you have foreign people who walk in the street without a scarf -- these girls get kidnapped.

In between these you have Shaheen, who is telling me all the time that I'm too scared, because it's a man's value to be brave and he's a brave guy, there's no question about that. He was in an attack two weeks ago. There was a bomb in a Shia Mosque and he helped to carry out the bodies. So there's no kidding about the fact that he's a brave guy and he has to be because he's been fighting to make his films. But you are in the middle of this and I'm not a brave person at all and I don't think being brave is a very important question. It is, but I'm not brave, I'm very scared and so in the middle of all of this stress it's enough just to manage to not go crazy, or to not drink too much [laughs].

Salim Shaheen and Sonia Kronlund (courtesy of Pyramide Films)

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