Thursday, February 18, 2010

Family Angst: Happy Tears

Father issues abound for Jayne’s mostly dysfunctional family. Her husband has a major inferiority complex as the untalented son of a famous painter, while her father Joe is slowly sinking into senility. Yet, there are plenty of bittersweet Terms of Endearment moments for her and her resentful sister in Mitchell Lichenstein’s indie family drama Happy Tears (trailer here), which opens tomorrow in New York.

Jayne is happy because she has mastered the art of denial. Everyone else in her family is miserable because they are either ruthlessly self-aware, like her sister, or mentally ill. Refusing to believe her gregarious father could degenerate to the extent her sister Laura claims, she keeps manufacturing excuses not to come home. When she finally relents, her first encounter with old Joe is pretty ugly, but she still labors to maintain her compulsive optimism. However, her sister seems to take perverse pleasure from puncturing her storybook existence, when not sponging off her money.

Indeed, there is enough sibling rivalry in Happy for two or three indie films. In between bickering, they both try to deal with dear old dad’s declining health, as well as “Nurse” Shelly, Joe’s creepy live-in hooker. While Happy is realistic to a fault depicting the challenges of coping with a parent in Joe’s condition, Lichenstein really lays the corn on thick when Jayne starts looking for treasure Joe supposedly buried in the backyard.

Lichenstein pretty much hits all the bases of indie family angst, but Happy’s fine art motif somewhat differentiates it from the pack. The paintings of Jayne’s late father-in-law are actually the work of Cy Twombley, which add some welcomed visual panache to the film. Even though writer-director Lichenstein is in fact the son of the celebrated pop artist Roy, we are told not to confuse him with Jayne’s neurotic husband. Likewise, in light of his recent tabloid headlines, it is tempting to conflate Rip Torn with Joe, his increasingly addled character, but probably the less said about that the better.

Jayne, the princess forced to come down to earth, is a perfect role for Parker Posey. Again, she proves compulsively watchable and consistently endearing despite her character’s manifest faults. Demi Moore turns in at least serviceable supporting work as the martyr sister, Laura. As for Torn, let’s say he is convincing and leave it at that. However, Ellen Barkin just looks and acts distractingly weird as the nurse-prostitute Shelly. You would have to be beyond senile to open up your home to her.

Featuring another strong indie star turn from Posey, Happy is not without some merit, but it feels awfully familiar and has more than a few real groaner moments. Ultimately, its strong cast cannot overcome the clichés they are saddled under. For Posey fans, it opens tomorrow in New York at the Angelika Film Center.

(Photo credit: John Baer)