Ellen Barkin is like a wasted natural resource: flexible, versatile and wholly underutilized as a movie actress.
So the good news is that, for much of Sam Levinson's Another Happy Day, on which Barkin was a producer, she's front and center, playing Lynn, a distinctly unhappy woman who seems to live to make herself miserable.
The bad news is that she succeeds. Another Happy Day, opening Friday (11/18/11) in limited release, is one long wallow in the misery of Lynn, aided and abetted by her family in all its sprawling creepiness. The film was written and directed by first-timer Sam Levinson, son of filmmaker Barry Levinson, who shows an ease with creating a crowded ensemble landscape. His grasp of tone, however, is much shakier.
Specifically, he makes gestures in the direction of comedy but can't get away from what is startlingly sad and pathetic about this family. It's fine to create comedy out of misery -- look at Little Miss Sunshine -- but it's not easy. And the darker side of what Levinson is attempting is almost unbearable at times.
First, the references: As you watch this film, you'll be reminded of everything from Robert Altman's A Wedding to Jonathan Demme's Rachel Getting Married -- both distinctly better films with a firm grip on the film from scene to scene and as a whole. Comparisons, however, are invidious.
Levinson's movie is about Lynn and her two sons, Elliot (Ezra Miller) and Ben (Daniel Yelsky), from her most recent marriage. They're en route to Maryland to the wedding of Dylan, Lynn's son from her first marriage. But the wedding will bring an emotionally fraught reunion with Lynn's first husband, Paul (Thomas Haden Church), whom she hasn't seen since she left their abusive marriage, taking their daughter Alice (Kate Bosworth) with her but leaving Dylan behind.
Everyone has problems. Ben has eating issues, Elliot is just out of rehab and Alice cuts herself. And Lynn -- well, Lynn has issues with her mother (Ellen Burstyn) and her father (George Kennedy) and with everyone else it seems. Still, given the cretinous nature of Lynn's two sisters (Diana Scarwid and Siobhan Fallon) and their husbands, it's not hard to see why Lynn had to escape. Her latest husband is a distracted doofus (Jeffrey DeMunn), who seems to be on another wavelength entirely.
The actual incidents in Levinson's story -- Lynn's father's flagging health, Elliot's relapse, the snotty way the rest of the family treats Lynn and her kids and the much-bruited reunion of Alice and Paul (who haven't seen each other or spoken in 10 years) -- are played with alternately shrill emotion and sarcastic jokes. But the sarcasm seldom strikes home and the shrillness simply grates after about 15 minutes.
Perhaps it's the way we've been conditioned by other movies of this type -- but I kept waiting for the other shoe to drop. I assumed there had to be some big bombshell -- some secret shame or something similar -- whose revelation would change how we feel about everything and justify everything we've had to endure from these painfully unlikable characters. But Levinson -- to his credit and detriment -- never takes that easy way out.
Which means that we're left with people who are simply as annoying and self-absorbed, as doomed and clueless, as they initially appear to be. Lynn grabs and grasps for something -- an apology, a recognition of her martyrdom -- that she never gets. Meanwhile, she spends most of the film with an expression on her face that suggests the imminence of tears, when she's not actually crying. Elliot, meanwhile, steals his grandfather's painkiller patches and sucks on them until he's cross-eyed and blue-lipped. And Ben keeps filming candid moments of the family, without catching anything remotely revealing.
Weddings are social functions that we're often obligated to attend. Another Happy Day, however, is a movie that makes you wish you'd checked the "Regrets only" section of this particular invitation.
Find more reviews, interviews and commentary on my website.
Follow Marshall Fine on Twitter: www.twitter.com/Marshall Fine