Back to the darkness of wedding-bell blues. Another Happy Day is another strained comedy about another dysfunctional family, but with some fine performances by a stellar ensemble of first-cabin performers that are definitely worth applauding. Despite the obvious comparisons to Jonathan Demme’s sprightly Rachel Getting Married, Noah Baumbach’s dreadful Margot at the Wedding, and a dozen other movies about how weddings bring out the worst in everybody, this one does mark an auspicious feature debut by a very talented writer-director, Sam Levinson, whose career is totally worth watching.
I tend to forget how marvelous Ellen Barkin can be until she gets the rare chance to pull out all the stops in a movie like this. She should work more often. In Another Happy Day, she plays Lynn, an affluent but deeply neurotic mother of four on the way to her parents’ Chesapeake Bay estate in Annapolis, Md., for the elaborate garden wedding of her eldest son Dylan, whom she was never allowed to raise, with two of her younger boys by a second marriage in tow.
Handsome, clean-cut Dylan (Michael Nardelli) is the sanest member of the family, which explains the hurt Lynn feels for being denied the privilege of watching him grow up. Instead, her middle son Elliot (Ezra Miller) is a 17-year-old drug addict with Tourette’s syndrome. Youngest son Ben (Daniel Yelsky), who has been diagnosed with autism, has brought his video camera along and drives everyone crazy filming. Their father is Lee (Jeffrey DeMunn), an odd character who lives in the past. Dylan and his sister Alice (Kate Bosworth) have a different father, Paul (Thomas Haden Church), Lynn’s ex-husband, who is also coming to the wedding, to Lynn’s mounting horror, with his other children and his bitchy second wife Patty (Demi Moore). Everyone fears the worst from estranged, psychopathic daughter Alice, who has not seen Paul for seven years.
When this train wreck descends upon the family home, Lynn finds herself submerged in something not unlike EC comic books’ Crypt of Terror. She’s surrounded by her two hateful sisters, her own father Joe (George Kennedy), a near-catatonic stroke victim with dementia and her mother Doris (Ellen Burstyn), the long-suffering family matriarch who doesn’t like any of them.
Elliot immediately steals his grandfather’s morphine and knocks himself out. During the rest of the weekend, tensions erupt and old animosities surface, leading to panic attacks and fist fights, while the irritating brat Ben gets it all on camera. Skeletons come piling out of the closets as an army of tertiary characters implode and the audience tries to figure out why they are so unhinged, angry and self-destructive in the first place.
You get a gumbo of confusion about Paul and Patty, who raised Dylan but turned their backs on his sister Alice, first and second husbands of Lynn’s, older and younger children by Paul and Lynn, two younger children by Lee and Alice, who doesn’t fit in anywhere. With all the siblings, stepchildren, in-laws and cousins, it’s hard to keep them straight. These are the kind of people who meet life’s most traumatic challenges with “Whatever.” Eventually, their whining insecurities take their toll and you find it difficult to care about any of them.
Characters jump through a few of the predictable hoops we’ve come to expect from this genre. The wedding scene itself drags, and since I didn’t really find any of the characters loveable, I couldn’t wait for it to end, but even when the movie lags, you can’t look away or you’ll miss something vital in the quality of Barkin’s polished, quirky performance.
Fortunately, Levinson is a careful writer-director, his dialogue is fresh enough to keep things moving and he wisely gives each of his actors a moving monologue or a similar moment of depth that serves as a mirror to their characters’ souls. He paints them neither black nor white but honest and believable, fleshing out the gray in between. Burstyn reveals so much truth in her eyes that she is riveting, even when she isn’t even speaking.
The family dynamics in the story end up stronger than the occasional speed bumps in the script, and the good work outweighs the imperfections. It’s good to see so much talent and feeling in one movie, and Another Happy Day has plenty of it.
Another Happy Day (R) ★★☆☆☆