I found HAPPY, HAPPY a bit of a quandary. It's a film that's not quite certain what it wants to be, except possibly to be labeled with the adjective "original," which it isn't all that much. Someone over at Film.com apparently found it "hilarious and incisive," which it really wasn't, either. Parts of the film clearly are intended to be humorous - maybe quirkily charming in some foreign-ish, philandering way - but it's entire leaps and bounds from either "hilarious" or "incisive." And someone at Variety apparently dubbed it "a winning comedy" ... but winning at what? Drama? Comedy? Melodrama? Contemporary marital horror nightmare? What?
At best, HAPPY, HAPPY is a character study in exaggeration, as none of these characters came off feeling all that legitimate to me. According to the film's press materials: "Family is the most important thing in the world to Kaja" ... yet, twenty minutes into the film, Kaja apparently believes performing oral sex on a near-total stranger in the room next to where her husband is waiting for her to come out of the bathroom is ok, so that kinda/sorta negates the whole premise of Kaja finding the concept of "family" all that important. Doesn't it? Not proof enough for ya? Well, forty minutes into the flick, Kaja is running naked through a frozen Winter countrywide - all hot & bothered from having just given the near-total stranger another bout of oral madness - while her son is walking up the drive. Of course, he sees mommy in the buff, frolicking as she is in the snow with someone who ain't dear ol' dad. Welcome to therapy, kid. Yeah, that whole concept of "family" sure ain't selling this picture!
Now, to be fair to the character of Kaja, family really ain't all that important to her. On that level - family not mattering - almost everything she does makes perfect sense to me, from the risky fellatio to the extramarital sex while her `closeted homo' husband is parking the car out front. Despite these proclivities - I say "despite these proclivities!" - Agnes Kittelsen imbues Kaja with a kind of small-town charm - the forever mousey girl-next-door - so much that you really can't dislike her. Maybe you can fault her, but it's hard to H-A-T-E her. See, Kaja doesn't find herself all that attractive; yet she has a small frame with delicate features and an infectious smile! For some reason, Kaja believes she's in a great marriage - with some of its own little shortcomings like a husband who ignores her and a son who treats her poorly - but, thankfully by the film's conclusion, she's come to grips with the reality. Her relationship is far from healthy, and it only took behaving like a child to turn her into an adult. While her unfaithful (and gay, don't forget) husband refuses to leave her, she'll leave him ... even though that essentially means that he'll be living in the cottage they keep out back.
If you approach HAPPY, HAPPY with a kind of lyrical `Bizarro World' mentality (up = down; down = up; HAPPY, HAPPY = SAD, SAD), the film makes vastly more sense, though it won't be for most people's tastes. It isn't irony so much as it is a study in opposites: the `perfect couple' that moves in next door is `far from perfect' as both of them give in to infidelity before and after we get to know them. It's this kind of idea - the study of opposites - that serves as a metaphor underlying the entire film. In fact, it gets so obvious that Kaja's boy (who is white) plays with the perfect couple's son (who is black while his "visible" parents are white, and it's never clearly established as to whether or not he's adopted or whether he's the result of the wife's established previous infidelity) ... and therein lies the principle problem when you're dealing with a study of opposites:
At which point has the world been set right? Do we know ... or will it always be this way?
It's never clear, or perhaps it's best to conclude that it's never clearly answered. However, you'll be glad to know that the `perfect couple' seemingly reconciles in what appears little more than a cookie-cutter "I miss you" moment that defies the logic (opposites) already established for the picture. (Shouldn't it have been "I don't miss you"?) They destroyed one another in their respective journeys to find one another ... or some other Hollywoodish nonsense that only appears in movies. At the end, everyone is HAPPY, HAPPY, so that's all that matters.
Also, the film has a disturbing subplot involving the two young boys which revolves around that never-ending source for comedy: slavery. In short, the little white boy gives the little black boy a book depicting the practices of slavery, and the two of them endure several supporting vignettes wandering about the house re-creating various stages of the slave/master relationship. See, that's all well and good ... right up until you see the little white boy whipping the little black boy ... and suddenly I'm left asking myself the questions of how so many film critics found the picture "beguiling ... hugely enjoyable" (according to the Star Tribune).
Maybe it's me, but I didn't see the title as being indicative of anything massively ironic in the story. I guess that I just find it hard to either feel sympathy or some hidden cinematic kinship for characters who make increasingly bad decisions - one worse than the next - where it involves the adult maturation of any relationship, much less the sanctity of marriage. Kaja's secretly unhappy; her husband's secretly unhappy; the perfect couple are secretly unhappy; the kids are secretly unhappy ... is this all there is to their (or our) shared experiences? I'd hope not.
To my surprise, HAPPY, HAPPY is not morose. Not in the slightest. These characters embrace their foibles, and, on that level they make it work as best as they can. In fact, I'd watch the luminous Agnes Kittelsen in anything based on her work here. She elevates it so much, and she breathes so much likeability into a character whose actions are everything but likeable that I couldn't look away any time she was on screen. The others here - while they did exemplary work - felt a little too safe, a little too predictable, felt way too similar to characters the audience has probably seen in hundreds of other feature films that dabbled closely with similar themes. But Ms. Kittelsen is all the rage here, and she's the only reason why I'd give this any recommendation. She seemingly inhabits Kaja, and, while you may not want to be her, you can appreciate her as a character despite the irony of her screen existence.
Methinks the good folks at Sundance (they awarded it the "Winner: World Cinema Jury Award") really need to come to grips with the fact that most people don't live their lives the way characters in movies do. Granted, life is never easy, and people around the world make the choices they do with the best available information they have at the time, and, somehow, I think that's lurking somewhere near the mildly depraved if not downright confused heart of HAPPY, HAPPY. "Believing you're happy" and "living as though you're happy" are two different realities, as Kaja comes to accept, and so should the people who dish out Sundance jury awards. Who knows? Maybe it's just me. Maybe I'm the cynic here, and these characters - though they bear no resemblance to anyone I know or have met - are the norm. Maybe there is a fairy tale with a fairy tale ending, but most likely it won't be found anywhere near a bunch of snobby film elites in some Colorado ski town.
Recommended for fans of indie pictures only
In the interests of fairness, I'd like to thank the people of Magnolia Home Entertainment for providing me with a screener DVD for the purposes of completing this review.