Happy Endings: Don Roos Comedy Starring Laura Dern, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Lisa Kudrow

Don Roos’ new comedy, “Happy Endings,” continues to explore the recurrent theme of his films: The various faces of love, more the functional and dysfunctional, in gay and straight milieus, suggesting that the differences between the two universes are rapidly declining.

The new film is not as hilarious or heartfelt as “The Opposite of Sex,” Roos’ most satisfying film to date, but it’s superior to his star-driven romantic melodrama, “Bounce,” that even Gwyneth Paltrow could not salvage.

The film received unfairly negative reviews at Sundance, where it world-premiered as opening night. Though rambling, overlong, and repetitious, as far as contemporary and alternate lifestyles are concerned, it’s much more relevant to the ways we live now than most of Hollywood’s fabricated romantic comedies.

Featuring a talented ensemble cast that includes Bobby Cannavale, Laura Dern, Maggie Gyllenhaal, and best of all, Lisa Kudrow, “Happy Endings” weaves together multiple stories in an effort to create a sharp, witty look at sex, love, and family. However, as in his previous films, Roos acquits himself more honorably as a writer than director. “Happy Endings” has too many characters and stories for its own good. And the narrative strategy, which is based on buried secrets, missed opportunities, and second chances, results here in a shapeless and diffuse film. Roos’ signature, an idiosyncratic blend of edginess and heart, doesn’t jell in this picture.

The script originated out of Roos’s interest in a simple premise: the relationship between a stepbrother and a stepsister. This modest concept evolved into three distinct story lines with a cast of ten principal characters. The stories are diverse: a woman blackmailed by an aspiring filmmaker; two gay couples in conflict over patrimony rights to a child; a trio consisting of a father, his gay son, and the free-spirited young woman who seduces both. As disparate as the first appears to be, the characters are unified by common needs and search for love.

Consider the following characters. Mamie (Kudrow), an emotionally scarred woman who gave up a child for adoption as a teenager, is being blackmailed by a filmmaker named Nicky (Jesse Bradford), who claims to know Mamie’s son. Nicky won’t introduce Mamie to him unless he can film their reunion. Enter Javier (Bobby Cannavale), Mamie’s Mexican massage therapist boyfriend, who convinces Nicky to film him instead.

Charley and longtime boyfriend Gil (David Suttcliffe) find themselves in the midst of a patrimony suit with his best friends, Pam (Laura Dern) and Diane (Sarah Clark), who once used Gil as a sperm donor. They said his sperm didn’t take, but Charley thinks the control-freak lesbians are lying, since their two-year-old son looks like Gil.

Then there’s Jude (Maggie Gyllenghaal), the aspiring singer with loose morality, who uses sex to achieve all her goals. When her cousin kicks her out of the house, Jude shacks up with Otis (Jason Ritter), a youngster still trying to convince his father, Frank (Tom Arnold), that he’s straight. Since Frank is a good catch–a rich widower–Jude decides to sleep with him too, creating an unusually complicated triangle.

In Roos’ universe, people do the wrong thing first, then think or lament about it. His characters lie, manipulate, and give in to their lesser impulses and basic instincts. Yet their genuine desire for love and social acceptance humanizes them. All the characters cover up their vulnerabilities, desires, and weaknesses because none wants to appear weak–being weak is the worst trait in Roos’ world.

Roos’ characters are damaged, but they are clueless about the source of their damage, or what to do to fix it. Instead of handling their problems head-on, they seem to go out of their way spinning it into something bigger and more complicated.

Love is the prime motivating factor: all the characters are seeking to love someone–anyone. And where there’s love, there’s sex. While not overtly sexual, each of the varied plots deals in some mode with the emotional and political consequences of sex, such as commitment or procreation. As Lisa says to Maggie, “Everything, even sex, is a much bigger deal than we think.”

Hence, all the important issues regarding reproduction, adoption, abortion, and surrogacy, are touched upon. And while these are personal issues, they are also tricky to legislate, since nothing is black and white anymore.

Roos doesn’t shy away from applying an honest approach to the sex act itself, either. He shows not only the glamorous and passionate aspects of sex, but also its awkward and ugly moments, those that are more realistic and common but seldom acknowledged in mainstream movies. And his lack of judgment is admirable, showing the difficulty of handling these sensitive issues without preaching or delivering messages.

Roos wrote the part of Mamie expressly for Kudrow, and indeed the role fits her like a silk glove. Mamie would like to believe she’s in control, but she’s really not. She has reached that point, where everything gets stripped away from her and she has no choice but to confront her secrets. While the part supplies Kudrow with Roos’s trademark one-liners, it also allows her to explore her less-exposed dramatic side, as a truly damaged woman.

Kudrow’s talents, apart from impeccable comedic timing, are well suited to conveying Mamie’s deep-rooted alienation. She excels at playing women who are not comfortable, women who never feel being part of the world. Her scenes with Nicky, the offbeat loser who blackmails her, and Javier, who demands to be the star of a movie about sex, are the funniest.

Roos’ brutal honesty and irreverent humor allow him to deal with tolerance, broadening our concepts of honesty, family, and friendship, while exposing the characters’ true desires. The movie acknowledges the complicated, dark impulses in our lives. Problem is, by today’s standards, a comedy like “Happy Endings” is not shocking anymore, largely due to indies such as “Happiness” or Roos’ own film, “Opposite of Sex.” Roos’ favorite theme, the many guises of dysfunctionality, is evident here, but somehow his examination of sex, love, and deceit is not as funny as usual.

The title “Happy Endings,” at once sincere and irreverent, a juxtaposition that encapsulates Roos’ sensibility, lends itself to various interpretations. As Roos suggests, “In a massage, if the masseur drifts into an area and stays there for a while, the massage ends happily.”

In Roos’ world, even people who do bad things, like blackmail, extortion, lying, and trickery, might end happy. In its good moments, “Happy Endings” leaves the viewers shifted, moved, sad and happy at the same time. Response to the film will vary: for some viewers the characters’ hopes, desires, and foibles will resonate more personally than for others.