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.