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Review: 'Happily' a Weird, Merry Chase to Nowhere

by Derek Deskins
EDGE Media Network Contributor
Friday Mar 19, 2021
Kerry Bishé and Joel McHale in 'Happily'
Kerry Bishé and Joel McHale in 'Happily'  

Can people in a relationship be too compatible? Can your significant other make you too happy? Are your friends just a collection of assholes? These all seem to be questions plaguing writer-director Ben David Grabinski in his feature debut, "Happily." But just because he's asking the questions doesn't mean he has any plans to actually answer them. Except in the case of your friends; they're definitely assholes.

For many, the "honeymoon phase" is just that: A phase. But in the case of Tom and Janet, it's their way of life. Having been married for fourteen years, the couple is still as ravenously infatuated with one another as when they first met. Their happiness, however, has not gone unnoticed by their friends.

A collection of Los Angeles stereotypes of success, these "friends" are sick and tired of having to watch the pair slink away for mid-party coital adventures. The jaded leaders of the group, Val and Karen, tell Tom and Janet in no uncertain terms that everyone is done with their "weirdness," promptly disinviting them from an upcoming couples' vacation. But after a mysterious man with a suitcase of curious syringes approaches the couple regarding their perceived happiness, Tom and Janet begin to worry that something might actually be wrong with them after all.

"Happily" is utterly fantastic at hooking you. Its premise is intriguing, delightfully twisted, and Grabinski gleefully starts drawing his characters with big, broad strokes. He plants a myriad of curiosities throughout the film's opening moments, establishing a "Twilight Zone"-esque environment — that is, if Rod Serling popped his collar, enjoyed cocaine, and actively disliked all of his friends. He establishes his protagonists and antagonists rapidly, while slyly winking at the audience that everything might not be quite as it seems. It makes you yearn to unravel the film's mysteries, to plumb its depths for clues, to discover just how odd this alternative world could be.

Then, Grabinski decides to abandon all of that.

"Happily" is not a film for explanations, resolutions, or, really, any kind of growth. It is a movie of setups: A joke with a punchline that never comes. The characters change their very personalities at each turn, sacrificing any sense of self in service of a plot whose only goal seems to be to point out that people are trash. I'm not here to argue with its "garbage people" thesis; however, I struggle to understand why we must jump through all of these hoops to land at such a simplistic idea.

That isn't to say that Grabinski isn't skilled at spinning his wheels for 90 minutes. The writing of "Happily" is witty, delightfully cynical, and often quite funny. Helping matters is the positively stacked cast. The pairing of comedic juggernauts like Joel McHale, Paul Scheer, Natalie Morales, Jon Daly, and Charlyne Yi with character actors that adeptly straddle the line between comedy and drama (see: Stephen Root, Kerry Bishé, Natalie Zea) can't help but be entertaining. But "Happily" runs out of room to play.

The characters devolve into a series of cutting retorts and mean-spirited comments, all blurring into one another. This very idea of persistent negativity overcomes the rest of the movie. The characters abandon any sense of searching, growth, or purpose. They actively intrude into the film itself, blocking the audience from any closure, and I can't seem to place why. Maybe it's just that Grabinski is tired of simplistic cinematic resolutions, and this is his way of "sticking it to the system." I'm just not sure why the audience needs to be sacrificed to make this point.

By the time you reach the end of "Happily," all that is left is a series of abandoned ideas, potential character arcs, and a return to relative normalcy. Our main characters are largely the same as when this all began, hungry for one another sexually and emotionally. Perhaps it's Grabinski's way of saying that love can conquer all, although I'm hesitant to believe that.

There comes a point near the end of the film where music from Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds rises, the lyrics coming through crystal clear: "People just ain't no good/I think that's well understood/You can see it everywhere you look/People just ain't no good." Nick Cave managed to get there in the opening of the track; I'm not sure why Grabinski felt the need to lead us on a wild goose chase for over an hour to say the same thing.


"Happily" opens in theaters, on digital, and on demand on March 19.

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