Friday, January 20, 2006

Movie Review: Happy Endings

Or: "All's Well That Ends Well, As Long As It Ends"

(Note: With the last part of "Dianapalooza" hitting a bit of a snag, I've broken it up into individual reviews, which I'll be putting out every week or so until I run through the list.)

Don Roos must have skipped Storytelling 101 when they gave that all-important "Show, Don't Tell" lecture.

On paper, this has all the ingredients of a successful "slice of life" movie. You've got a bunch of characters wandering through their lives, dealing (or failing to deal) with various problems: infidelity, desire, greed, the pursuit of happiness, and so on. They're all flawed, they're all accessible, and they each have a story to tell.

The problem is that Roos doesn't let them tell it. What he does is intersperse little text captions throughout the movie, detailing what's happening/has happened/will happen to these characters at any given point. It's basically a shortcut through character development, where we're told all sorts of things about these people but we don't see any of it, we don't have any insight into their personalities that isn't encapsulated in a sentence or two. Roos gives us entire relationships that are summarized rather than dramatized, even in the film's most climactic moments.

Consequently, it all comes up rather short. We're told one character will be the happiest of the group in twenty years, "but that's another story" - well, if we don't know how, and we don't see him go through any process that might get him to that point, who cares? Roos is self-defeating here: the only reason I can think of as to why he'd cut corners is to trim the length of the movie without sacrificing any of the subplots. But by doing this, he basically cuts out any on-screen character development. The cast members jump from Point A to Point B, and we're told how they got there, but it's not enough. We're supposed to see transition and growth, that's the whole point.

Sometimes these excursions are even contradictory: when Frank and Jude get together, the narrator tells us it's not going to end well for her - but when we see her for the last time, she's singing in a nightclub, wearing an expensive dress and looking pretty happy. It's not like you can ignore these SMS-like messages: the characters don't stand on their own without it, because there's no other way you can get the information.

Big disappointment overall. The acting was good - Lisa Kudrow surprised me by not getting on my nerves, and there was something captivating in Maggie Gyllenhaal's performance as Jude. But Roos holds back too much.