For Crying Out Loud
By Matt Connolly
Dir. Mitchell Lichtenstein, U.S., Roadside Attractions
With the possible exception of the post-Tarantino crime thriller, has any genre been as good to American independent film over the past 20 years as the family dramedy? One can hardly begin to count the stories of estranged children, bickering couples, or wayward siblings who all end up back under the same roof: crying and laughing and truth-telling their way to moist-eyed emotional equilibrium, if not redemption. It’s no mystery why these films keep popping up. For budget-conscious directors, dialogue-heavy screenplays set in a limited number of everyday locations keep the costs down. At the same time, stars looking to bolster their thespian credentials often jump at the highly emotive, de-glammed roles that populate these scripts, and at a reduced price to boot. Beyond industrial considerations, however, they hold appeal for viewers who like largely conventional films accented with indie flavor. These movies’ slightly looser, observational narratives and less polished visual style allow them to stand apart from their Hollywood counterparts, while still casting a wide net in terms of audience relatability. (We all have families, right?) Given all this, it’s little wonder that so many of these films have been made, and consequently, how the characters and situations routinely seen within them have hardened into generic formula.
This brings us to Happy Tears. It’s worth saying up front that Mitchell Lichtenstein’s film—following a pair of grown sisters caring for their aging father—is a complete mediocrity. To call it “sitcom-like” would be a disservice to the many television comedies that transcend the pat storytelling, easy laughs, and largely risible aesthetics at work here. Lichtenstein packs the film with so many familiar tropes and treats them so impersonally, he provides future generations with a kind of ideal snapshot of what middlebrow indies looked and felt like at the start of the new decade. Like a prehistoric bug encased in amber, Happy Tears will probably serve its most effective purpose as an historical artifact: a compendium of clichés preserved in its purest state, untainted by idiosyncrasy or authorial vision.
Lichtenstein lays out the disparities between the two sisters’ temperaments and lifestyles with dreary familiarity. Jayne (Parker Posey) is the spacey wife of Jackson (Christian Carmargo), the unstable son of a renowned, and now deceased, abstract painter. Seemingly without gainful employment, she spends her days shopping and hoping to get pregnant. How forward thinking! During the film’s opening scenes, in a particularly eye-rolling bit of Screenwriting 101, Lichtenstein visualizes Jayne’s self-absorbed materialism through her purchase of a pair of $2,800 thigh-high leather boots, which she will proceed to wear throughout the entire duration of the movie. (You don’t have to be Robert McKee to guess what the eventual removal of said footwear will “symbolize.”) Laura (Demi Moore), meanwhile, plays the dutiful but cynical caregiver for elderly father Joe (Rip Torn). A environmental scientist with three kids and a husband who “no longer wants to sleep with men,” Laura resents Jayne for not helping out more with their irascible father’s physical decline, and calls her out to their hometown of Pittsburgh to care for him so Laura can take a break. After Jayne arrives, however, they soon discover that Joe is quickly slipping into an advanced form of dementia. Long-term care decisions need to be made, as well as what to do about Joe’s girlfriend Shelly (Ellen Barkin), a grubby-looking dope fiend who sponges off Joe financially.
Easily defined character types, complicated familial dilemmas reduced to cutesy-poo humor and shrill arguments, a sprinkling of drug use and sexual shenanigans: when it comes to middling indie quirk, Happy Tears truly has it all. The complex dynamics surrounding how adult children care for their declining parents gets particularly flattened here. With the exception of an early scene that finds Laura and Jayne cleaning the feces out of Joe’s ass after an accident, no one seems particularly concerned with dealing in the messiness of old age. Lichtenstein feels far more comfortable doling out family secrets and unearthing long-buried sibling antipathy, providing predictable showcases for Moore and Posey to yell, roll their eyes, and eventually collapse into a pool of (wait for it!) happy tears. Both actresses are appealing enough—Posey does a slightly more heartfelt variation of her stock Posey-isms (wide-eyed gaze; lips curled into a puzzled, mask-of-tragedy frown), while Moore sighs and swears with agreeable resignation—yet the very presence of just-off-mainstream actors like Posey, Barkin, and Torn only underlines the been-there-done-that quality of Happy Tears.
Lichtenstein’s attempts to shake things up aesthetically prove all the more obnoxious for their utter transparency, further defining Happy Tears as a grab-bag of generic tics. There’s no more egregious example than the insertion of several of fantasy sequences that spring from Jayne’s stress- and at times hallucinogen-addled brain. The curt, sharp-eyed salesperson showing Jayne those damned boots briefly morphs into a vulture-like creature, prodding Jayne to make a purchasing decision. Later, after popping some mysterious pills with a hunky construction worker (Billy Magnussen), she has an elaborate dream that finds her floating in a jellyfish-like bubble under the sea, as symbols of her marital and pregnancy anxieties drift around her.
Beyond their dull visual noodling, these scenes irk for their obvious attempts to detach the film’s otherwise conventional narrative from the mainstream movies that Lichtenstein owes quite a bit. By itself, Happy Tears is harmless enough, yet when one considers how prominently films like this factor into the viewing public’s understanding of American independent cinema—and given the bigger-name stars that these vehicles attract, they usually end up higher on the distribution pecking order—it’s a bit dispiriting. After all, what’s really the difference between Happy Tears and a Nora Ephron rom-com, besides the sheen of indie cool used to gloss up its shopworn conventions? A film such as Julie and Julia feels more honest in its goals of providing uncomplicated and unapologetically typical entertainment. As for Happy Tears, let’s lock it away in the time capsule; and while we’re at it, let’s throw away the key.