I can’t tell you how many times a friend has come up to me with a story that positions their significant other as the proverbial albatross around their neck with a look that screams, “Amirite?” only to have me shrug, smile, and reply, “I don’t know. I actually like my partner.” I only partially say this in jest because I do hope they’ll hear those words and rethink their situation—their refusal to acknowledge their own part in their problems, the possibility that their relationship isn’t working, or whatever else. That this desire to undercut and blame the people we love as being the constant source of our unhappiness has become the norm is a perfect example of social conditioning gone wrong. We are allowed to be happy.
And what better way to dismantle the notion that talking behind a spouse’s back and keeping secrets from them is an unavoidable part of the institution known as marriage (and its synonyms) than to crank things up to eleven with some weirdly surreal, black comedy goodness? As writer/director BenDavid Grabinski proves with his feature debut Happily, the answer is none. Pitting a “perfect” couple in Tom (Joel McHale) and Janet’s (Kerry Bishé) fourteen-year coupling that still sees them having sex two-point-five times a day with zero animosity or passive-aggressive games opposite their resentful friends is the best and most entertaining way to do it. There’s nothing like someone else’s happiness to remind you of what you’re missing and these two have flaunted it for far too long.
It’s why Val (Paul Scheer) and Karen (Natalie Zea) have disinvited them from their couples’ vacation alongside Patricia (Natalie Morales) and Donald (Jon Daly), Carla (Shannon Woodward) and Maude (Kirby Howell-Baptiste), and Richard (Breckin Meyer) and Gretel (Charlyne Yi)—now that’s a cast. The pressure of watching Tom and Janet be effortlessly lovey-dovey while they’re forced to pretend they aren’t fuming about their partners and/or actively hiding why their partners should be fuming about them feels like a slap in the face. Why? Maybe it’s jealousy. Maybe it’s self-loathing. Maybe it’s pure malice. All we know for certain is that they’ve agreed their acquiescence to unhappiness is the control and unadulterated love is the virus. If they cut out the metastasized cells, their frustration becomes happiness by default.
The scenario is expertly constructed in a way that forces Tom and Janet to consider whether they are indeed the problem. Is their sexual attraction unnatural? Is their blind devotion somehow sociopathic? No. Screw those guys. If they can’t handle seeing what real romance looks like, good riddance. But while it’s one thing to ignore those calls for drama in order to maintain their utopian existence, it’s another to ignore an outside party’s opinion. Because as fate has it, the morning after Val and Karen’s bombshell finds a stranger at Tom and Janet’s door. Stephen Root’s Goodman, (channeling Frank Langella’s Arlington Steward from The Box with a more genial demeanor), arrives with unexplained contrition. He’s apologizing for the fact they found each other. Two “defective” souls never should.
Without giving too much away, I’ll say that this cryptic figure offers an antidote. If Tom and Janet take it, they’ll become like their friends: self-pitying characters forever dreaming about greener pastures so that what they have will never be enough. Not only is it a non-starter, it’s also a science fiction impossibility. Right? Right?! That’s what they’re about to discover once their disinvitation is rescinded. They’re going to enter the lion’s den to interact with all the people that despise them while trying to keep up their sex-crazed appearances despite the nagging sense of self-doubt slowly creeping in. As we’ve seen via subtle (and not so subtle) interactions, however, Tom and Janet aren’t perfect. We’ve seen the work they put in that their friends miss.
So are they truly different from everyone else? Are they missing something that has made them blissfully ignorant to the human desire for more? Is that even a bad thing? Or are they simply so compatible that nothing big or small can ever get between them? Goodman has therefore introduced an element of divine intervention (this idea that “he and his organization made a mistake” alludes to God and Creation) into what was a silly psychological experiment proving our self-destructive tendencies when we’re not willing to be open and honest with those we love. Maybe the syringes in his suitcase can make things right or maybe they’re simply a placebo that will ultimately show how “right” is a matter of perception. Happiness is relative after all.
Just because Grabinski wields heady themes, however, doesn’t mean “fun” isn’t his top priority. Similar to Vivarium and Coherence, the elements that keep us thinking don’t stand in the way of our entertainment. Whereas those lean into the dark, existentialist dread of their scenarios, Happily tilts in the opposite direction towards irreverence instead. So when subjects such as murder arise under the umbrella of survival, they unfold with calm serenity and acceptance. When talk of the impossible arises that anyone in their right mind would instantly reject, the knowledge that the person talking isn’t a liar is enough to secure unwavering support. Add some deep-cut one-liners and a stoned-out-of-her-mind Yi calling shotgun in the most absurd way possible and this ride becomes a gift that keeps giving.
How could it not with this cast? Morales stands out as the group’s Switzerland by being the sole person that’s happy Tom and Janet came. Scheer and Zea and Woodward and Howell-Baptiste each exude a familiarly combative yet loving rapport that couples often possess while Yi has a way of stealing multiple scenes (Meyer is conversely quiet and almost forgettable in the background—for reasons soon to be made clear). Where they all excel in supporting roles, however, McHale and Bishé are the ones who carry things because only they (like us) are aware of the sinister goings on beneath their over-the-top lust and the increasingly transparent surrealist nightmare entrapping them. Their dynamic is simultaneously an impossible ideal and an authentic reality to aspire towards. Mankind’s unwitting heroes.
Happily hits limited release, VOD, and Digital HD on March 19.