“Improbably for a movie that has this much going on, there’s a parting feeling that something was left on the table.”
by Ken Bakely
As an ambitious and inquisitive work, BenDavid Grabinski’s Happily succeeds when laying out the complex lattice of its plotting – seemingly exploring every possible pathway for its material – but falters when it comes to executing its plot in a way that adequately contains all of its disparate pieces – it can feel scattershot, unfinished, and ultimately underdeveloped. Though it begins strongly enough, with a funny setup that reveals the first of the story’s many twists: Tom (Joel McHale) and Janet (Kerry Bishé) are a couple who have been together for fourteen years, but seem to have the unending affection and sex drive of newlyweds. The flame has never gone out – and perhaps has grown stronger. Their friends have gone from finding this unusual to irritating, and now past that to considering it vaguely disturbing – Val (Paul Scheer) and Karen (Natalie Zea) strongly consider disinviting them from a couples’ getaway they’ve been planning with others, dreading the idea of putting up with them for a whole weekend.
But that’s the least of Tom and Janet’s problems now, after a man (Stephen Root) visits their home, demanding they take a medication which would apparently revert their marriage to an unassuming mean. They refuse, and eventually resort to drastic actions to keep him at bay. Now with their planned trip, they seek to forget about what’s just happened, but everything – from the behavior of others, to secrets hidden in the rented mansion they’re all staying in – suggests that their odd encounter may be but one part of something even bigger and stranger than they could have imagined.
I’d estimate that covers a little more than the first act of Happily. The story begins as something relatively straightforward before beginning a series of careening hard turns, which become increasingly frequent and frantic as the film goes on. The script investigates the beliefs and tropes of domestic comedies and turning them on their head, but before long, Grabinski has fully plunged his movie into the realm of a more opaque, paranoid thriller, and continuing to pull at the edges of every turn along the way, creates something more casually surreal. It’s fascinating as an experiment, to see Grabinski concoct a heavily referential film that never seems stuck on one idea for too long. But while this can be exciting and fresh at times, there comes a point when the movie seems like it doesn’t have anywhere left to go, sprinting around in its revelations while making fewer lasting impressions. Happily wants to comment on a lot of things – from secrets among the people we think we know, to the default pessimistic views of marriage that seem to permeate common understanding – yet never actually points in any one direction long enough to communicate any lasting points or takeaways.
It’s a similar problem that’s reflected in the cast. There is nothing wrong with the actors’ performances – McHale and Bishé lead a sharp ensemble who are able to navigate the ever-shifting tones of the film quite well; their work is agile, selling the jokes and pivoting to wherever the script takes them. But for all that does wind up happening, there’s often the question if there wasn’t more they could be doing, or at least have the opportunity to do. So much of the material is surface level in the end, again returning to that problem of a movie that seems unwilling to dive deeper and interrogate its ideas. It’s hard to unilaterally discount Happily – there’s much to be admired here, with Grabinski, in his feature debut, piecing together a lot of interesting, engaging stuff in the abstract, with his clear command of the language of different genres and styles coming through in his script’s numerous contortions. But the film is a lot weaker when it comes to the details – there just aren’t enough to sustain it. What begins as a cleverly oriented and unpredictable ride ends as something distinctly underwhelming. Improbably for a movie that has this much going on, there’s a parting feeling that something was left on the table.