Don Roos, whose caustic “The Opposite of Sex” was one of the indie highlights of 1998, returns to the scene with “Happy Endings,” a dark-undertoned comedy about unkind people manipulating each other.
Most of the people in this huge ensemble of characters are not likable at first, but only a couple of them remain so by the film’s end. It’s not that they redeem themselves, necessarily; it’s more that they grow on you and become familiar to you. Some of our real-life friends aren’t saints, either, but we still love them.
Roos uses onscreen titles to give us characters’ backgrounds and to provide insight, such as the observation that one character “never lies.” That this character turns out, in fact, to have lied about a number of things is a reminder that neither we nor the characters should believe everything we hear. Sometimes even our movies lie to us.
Mamie (Lisa Kudrow) is a counselor at a Los Angeles abortion clinic, a job that would seem perfect for her, given that she is coldly detached from life and that she had an abortion herself when she was a teenager. The pregnancy was the result of a tryst with her stepbrother, but not so fast: Rather than have the abortion, she hid herself with her father in Phoenix, had the baby, and gave him up for adoption. No one but her father knows this, because she gives everyone the story about her imaginary abortion.
Enter Nicky (Jesse Bradford), a grungy would-be filmmaker who has learned Mamie’s secret and even knows the whereabouts of her son. His condition for reuniting them is that he wants to film the reunion; he thinks it would make a great documentary for his film-school application. Having dangled this in front of Mamie, he refuses to tell her ANYTHING about her child unless she helps him make a film. Now desperately curious to meet her long-lost son, Mamie enlists her Mexican boyfriend Javier (Bobby Cannavale), a suave massage therapist, to let Nicky make a film about him instead. They tell Nicky that Javier is a FULL-service masseur, if you know what I mean. Nicky agrees that this would make nearly as compelling a film as the mother-son reunion.
Meanwhile, Mamie’s stepbrother Charley (Steve Coogan), once her impregnator, now gay, is in a dull relationship with a man named Gil (David Sutcliffe). Their best friends, lesbians Pam (Laura Dern) and Diane (Sarah Clarke), have just had a baby via artificial insemination, and Charley thinks the baby looks remarkably like Gil….
Meanwhile, Charley owns a karaoke-infused restaurant where one of his employees is a rich kid named Otis (Jason Ritter). Otis is gay but in denial, and awkwardly hiding the secret from his dad Frank (Tom Arnold). To help him out, Otis’ new friend Jude (Maggie Gyllenhaal) sleeps with him, thus throwing Dad off the trail. But Jude is an opportunist, and she decides dating Dad would be better for her financially than would dating his gay son. Otis knows what she’s up to, but Jude has him over a barrel: If he warns his dad that Jude is a golddigger, Jude will “out” him.
As I said, unkind people manipulating each other, often amusingly and often with an ineptitude that is pitiful. Witness Charley’s attempts to get Pam to admit she used Gil’s sperm to make her baby: He tells Pam that Gil — her oldest and dearest friend — has an incurable brain disease that afflicts all the men in his family. He takes her crying and fleeing the room to mean she’s worried for the health of her new baby, and not the concern for her good friend that it really is.
In the end, perhaps Jude is the only truly despicable character. The others make headway, have little epiphanies, or at the very least realize they suck at being Machiavellian and resort to being nice instead. The film seems cynical for a while — when Mamie tells Jude she’s not “pro-life,” Jude replies, “Who is, once you start paying attention?” — but that attitude slowly dissolves into one that is more world-weary than bitter, and perhaps a little wiser than before.
The cast is uniformly excellent, each performer filling his or her little part in the film with energy and style. Lisa Kudrow’s first major post-“Friends” gig shows her sarcastic, savvy side; Jason Ritter honors his father’s memory with an endearingly Jack Tripper-esque blend of slapstick and haplessness; Steve Coogan continues to be one of the best comic actors to come from England in the last 10 years; and the underused Jesse Bradford, so witty and adept at playing a clueless documentarian, makes me wonder again why he hasn’t become a big star yet.
Roos’ major hurdle is keeping all the characters and stories in check without losing control, and he mostly accomplishes it. That said, you wonder if it all needed to make the final cut: At 128 minutes, this is longer than most dramas, let alone most comedies, and you feel it by the end. Blackmail and extortion get old after a while, you know.
B (2 hrs., 8 min.; )