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Karin Badt

Karin Badt

Posted February 20, 2009 | 11:31 AM (EST)

Berlinale 2009: Mitchell Lichtenstein's Happy Tears


Wiping excrement from one's father's bottom is not an activity that any child looks forward to in her future, yet it does become a reality for some, and this is the unhappy premise of Mitchell Lichtenstein's new film, "Happy Tears." The film is the story of two sisters, spacey Jayne played by a girlish Parker Posey, and the more balanced housewife Laura, played by a captivating Demi Moore, who must together deal with their unattractively demented father (Rip Torn) who spurts out rude sexual comments at every opportunity. While the film is uneven and sloppy in rhythm, it is still a memorable evocative portrait of what happens to adult children when coping with aging parents.

The film begins with a catchy first scene: Jayne is in a shoe shop, choosing between black and nearly black 2000 dollar boots (she, the happy-go-lucky sister, has lucked out in having a rich husband), and the scene quickly turns into her fantasy that the clerk has transformed into a rapacious bird with a huge beak face. Jayne's capacity for fantasy is indeed the highlight of the film: when later she is wiping her father's dirty bottom in the bathtub, she flashes to a romantic scene on the beach, where she is drinking cocktails with a beloved under the sun.

Laura, her sister, never has such deliriums of fancy, but has her feet firmly on the earth: she deals with the urgent real question of whether to put the father into a nursing home.

This contrast between realism and fantasy is the brilliant problematic of the film, posing the question which sister is "right"? The one who grimly faces the abusive sick behavior of the parent, or the other who looks to the bright side? The movie seems to balance both views, even rewarding the Peter Pan character of Jayne with what she most desires -- a child, a wish realized in a gorgeous surreal drug trip with a teenager (Jayne floats in the stars and is met by a hyper-real spermatozoid) -- at the same time as it offers a practical resolution to the father issue for Laura.

However, the film flounders because the film director himself seems -- midway through the movie -- to fantasize away from the pain of his own story. He tosses in a slapstick character, a drug-addict kleptomaniac nurse who is the father's lover, and a treasure hunt for coins in the backyard. The serious edge which made the film so promising dissipates into the offbeat and gratuitous.

I met the director Mitchell Lichtenstein, dressed casually in jeans and sneakers, in the Adlon Hotel in Berlin, to discuss his own relation to the problematic of the film. A charmingly humble man -- son of the renowned pop artist and artist in his own right (as fiction writer, actor and director of the acclaimed movie Teeth) -- he openly discussed his own experience dealing with a demented parent (his mother) when he was just in his twenties.

"But her dementia was different," he volunteered with a shy grin. "It was alcohol induced and devolved over three years, until she died." Not only did she have the typical symptoms of memory loss and paranoia, she -- during a lunch -- forgot her own sexual orientation and spoke about herself as a lesbian.

Moreover, the trauma of dealing with his mother's demise began much earlier for Mitchell. As a teenager, he would come back to his home and see his alcoholic mother sitting on the couch -- where she would have been sitting all day -- with her pet monkey on her shoulder.

"A bit depressing," I said.

"A LOT depressing," Mitchell responded.

In the meantime, his father, the famed artist, offered his son a different vision of life, in his loft in New York City. Unlike the stereotype of the off-kilter artist, Roy Lichtenstein was a balanced optimistic man.

"Perhaps this is where the division started," Mitchell said, noting that the flash just came to him at that moment. "The division between a claustrophobic home and an artistic life in the city. Maybe this was the inspiration for my film. Jayne, who lives in urban San Francisco, versus my mother in her New Jersey ranch house. My mother never left the house."

The germ of the story was Jayne, he continued. "Jayne escapes from hard truths and realities. Yes, I identify. I too am reluctant to face unpleasantries. While I don't go to fantastic extremes like Jayne, my initial impulse is to deny."

Parker Posey, in a subsequent interview, agreed with this assessment of her fictional character. Stretched out like a languorous cat on the carpet (jetlagged, she said), dressed in purple sweater and jeans (and less than 2000 dollar boots), she explained that for her, Jayne is "a jellyfish." Unstable.

Like the director, Posey also had much sympathy -- if not identification -- with Jayne. "I like playing people who are lost," she said with a mischievous grin. "I like their sensitivity."

The film is layered with sensitivity. The most interesting subtext in the film is that Jayne's wealthy husband Jackson -- the son, coincidentally enough, of a famous artist -- does not want to have his own biological children because he is afraid of passing on the genes of his own demented father.

Might this fear be something personal as well to Mitchell?

"To be honest, I also would not have children, for a similar reason," Mitchell admitted directly. "I would be afraid to transmit my own unhappiness. So yes, there is a connection."

Still, despite all this pain, Happy Tears ends well -- with an especially rewarding union between the two opposite sisters. The family -- in all its messiness -- thrives.

As does the movie. As a film which -- like the engaging director himself -- vulnerably exposes the inchoate emotions that children experience when facing not only aging parents, but memories of abuse (the father was a sex maniac in the sisters' youth), it is a strong testimony to human murkiness and well-worth seeing, despite its awkward leaps of fantasy away from its own theme.