Hollywood seems to have created a new subgenre; let's call it the Urban Sprawl Epic. In these films, a usually talented filmmaker weaves a large number of disparate characters through a comedy or drama, imbuing each character with a life, a history, but divergent stories, until a single element brings them all together. Think Altman's "Short Cuts", think Anderson's "Magnolia", think Curtis' "Love Actually". Don Roos' "Happy Endings" tries very hard to reach the same level as the other films, but falls flat, way flat, flatter than the massage table featured prominently in the film.
The story focuses, more or less, on Mamie (Lisa Kudrow, TV's "Friends"), an abortion counselor who also had an abortion at age 17. She is in love with Javier (Bobby Cannavale, "The Station Agent"), a masseuse. One day, Nicky (Jesse Bradford, "Bring It On") walks into her life and convinces her to help him make a film, to help him get into the AFI. Mamie's step-brother, Charley (Steve Coogan, "Around the World in 80 Days"), lives with his partner, Gil (David Sutcliffe), and their best friends are a Lesbian couple with a new baby boy, Pam (Laura Dern) and Diane (Sarah Clarke, TV's "24"). Charlie runs a restaurant and one of his employees, Otis (Jason Ritter), the closeted drummer of a band meets Jude (Maggie Gyllenhall, "Secretary"), offering a place to crash. At Otis' house, she meets his dad, Frank (Tom Arnold) and they fall in love.
Whew! That's a lot to get a handle on. Unfortunately, it seems to be too much for Roos as well. He spends so much time keeping track of all of the frantic characters that he seems to have forgotten that the film needs some comedy or drama or both.
For the first and the last twenty minutes, or so, all of the characters are introduced or wrapped up and Roos uses a series of title cards to tell us information that is meant, I think to be funny. Instead, they simply serve to telegraph any funny moments, robbing them of the very element that might serve to make them funny, surprise. They also seem to be used to prevent any unnecessary exposition, to save us time as we watch these people's lives develop. If there isn't enough time, or the information is too slight to warrant time, we don't need to see it. But because the film runs over two hours, there is time. A lot of time. Too much time to explore these characters lives.
The real standouts in the cast are Lisa Kudrow and Maggie Gyllenhall. Kudrow's character is difficult to like (according to one of Roos' title cards, anyway), but the actress makes her believable. She brings a subtle nuance to the role revealing the pain she has lived through for most of her life. Her character is a lot less convincing once Nicky enters the picture. Nicky basically blackmails her into helping him, but then she starts to actually help him make a film. The premise for the film is so convoluted and stupid and Nicky, as played by Bradford, is one of the worst stereotypes of a film student I have ever seen. I was waiting for him to stand up in the middle of a class and begin asking a question designed to reveal his intelligence to one and all amassed. Thankfully, that doesn't happen. The very idea that Nicky would blackmail Mamie into helping him with a film makes no sense. Yes, he initially wants to make a documentary about her, but she convinces him to make a documentary about another subject and the film becomes a chaotic mess. Mamie is an abortion counselor, not a filmmaker.
Maggie Gyllenhall is much better as Jude, a young woman who uses men to get what she needs. When you see the state of her life, you will realize how pathetic this is, and how brilliant. As she romances Tom Arnold (who, surprisingly, turns in a restrained, and believable performance), she makes it clear that she views men as stepping stones to her goal. Somehow, these plans never quite work out.
All of the performers are good. They aren't the problem. The problem is that there is no emotional connection to these characters. A particularly sad attempt at a subplot involves Charley, his boyfriend, the two lesbian parents and their child. At one point, his boyfriend says "What are you? Lucy?" referring to the madcap antics Lucille Ball used to get into in her classic TV show. Well, no Charley is no Lucy and the attempts at broad comedy come off as lame and tired.
All of the blame rests at Don Ross' feet. After "The Opposite of Sex", his weird, hilarious debut film, I was quite honestly shocked at how bad "Happy Endings" was. The characters seem to be living in vortexes, swirling around the two or three other people in their universe and the other vortexes are running out of control in equal measure. Yet, they don't connect. The stories connect, but the characters don't. Charley and Mamie are step-siblings, yet they only come together at the very end. Even the powerful emotion of this story is diluted by the un-funny attempts at jokey title cards used to tie up this story. The connections between the other characters and other stories are less tenuous and less interesting.
The reason "Magnolia" and "Love Actually" and the other examples of this genre succeeded is because we had a connection to the characters and cared about them. I didn't care for anyone in "Happy Endings" and didn't care about what happened to them. No connection.