Apparently, no one ever told Mitchell Lichtenstein, "Hey, buddy, watch your tone."
So his films - 2007's notorious Teeth and now Happy Tears - are exercises in tonal upheaval, with shifts that pull the audience back and forth, from tragedy to absurdist comedy and back again.
Which is what Lichtenstein had in mind, particularly with Happy Tears, which opened Feb. 19 in limited release.
"I'm figuring out my tone as I make movies," Lichtenstein, 53, says. "I like unexpected shifts in tone. It seems lifelike to me. This isn't kitchen-sink drama but life does have those sudden shifts. This is my second feature. The first feature had tonal shifts as well. It was a dark comedy but it was also a horror film."
In fact, Lichtenstein hadn't planned to direct Teeth, a film with gruesome humor about a virginal teen-age girl who discovers that she has vagina dentata : teeth in her vagina, which get snappishly angry when she is sexually assaulted (which happens frequently in the film).
But the more he thought about surrendering his script to another director ("I thought a woman should direct it"), the more he realized that no one else could capture the tone - that mix of grisly horror and outrageous comedy - that he had in mind.
"At a certain point, the tone became so specific and personal," he says, "that I thought, well, someone else would do an interesting job but I'd have to direct it to get the tone I wanted. I was worried, given the subject matter, if the tone was not satirical about that myth, that women would be up in arms about it. Mostly that didn't happen. You see the intention not to perpetuate that myth. Still, there were theaters that wouldn't play it, who objected to the subject matter."
Happy Tears seems to be more mainstream - but only on the surface. The film focuses on a pair of sisters, Jayne (Parker Posey) and Laura (Demi Moore) Deakes, who must make a decision about what to do with their aging father, Joe (Rip Torn), when he starts to exhibit signs of dementia.
Laura is the practical older sister, who has always protected the dreamier Jayne from the harsh truths about Joe - a philanderer and an alcoholic who cheated on their mother and has drunk himself into his current state. But they both must face reality when they return to their Pittsburgh home to decide his future.
As it happens, Jayne is married to the son of a famous and recently deceased painter - and the husband spins out of control trying to take charge of his father's sprawling estate and artistic legacy. Lichtenstein, the son of the late artist Roy Lichtenstein, drew only partially on his own experience for the character.
"For this plot, it worked to have that character, Jackson, trying to prove something to his father posthumously," Lichtenstein says. "It's work that Jackson isn't cut out to do. It's not a one-person job and that served my purpose. I had a great relationship with my father. And we've got a foundation that deals with his work. But the idea came from the notion: What if I didn't? What if I had to be in charge or felt I needed to? How overwhelmed would I feel? It came out of that what if.
"But really, there's a lot about fathers in this film. Jane idealizes her father and Laura doesn't. So there's that, too."
In terms of those tonal swings, Lichtenstein isn't afraid to jump from a moment in which Jayne is once again Daddy's girl, joking with Joe, to dealing with the fact that he's lost control of his bowels and soiled himself. So she and Laura are forced to take him into the bathroom, strip him down and wash him off.
"I debated how gross and graphic to get with that," Lichtenstein says. "I left it as graphic as it is to bring it closer to Jayne. I experimented with a softer version. As hard as it kind of is to take, I like the honesty of what you have to deal with in that situation.
"It makes you understand Jayne viscerally. You see her for the first time in that scene. She flees the unpleasant reality and goes to a better place. We turn away the same way."
As for Torn, who must bare his seemingly befouled buttocks for the scene, Lichtenstein says, "He had a ball."
Torn was arrested Jan. 30 after breaking into a bank near his home in Salisbury, Ct. He reportedly was intoxicated and carrying a loaded gun; Lichtenstein won't say much about the actor, other than calling him "a gift from the publicity gods."
"Rip was a pretty natural choice for that role," he adds. "He is as irascible as that character."
Lichtenstein, who started his career as an actor (in Robert Altman's Streamers), likes the fact that, after the emotional rollercoaster that Happy Tears represents, it winds up with most of the characters feeling calmer and more secure than you'd expect.
"It's a happy ending but happy-odd," he says. "Jayne gets what she wants but not in the way she wants. It's a homey family, but Joe is obviously suffering from dementia. That's why I like it as a happy ending. Because Jayne isn't punished for her recklessness. And that's pretty unusual."