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Digesting "Happy Tears" requires a particular effort of endurance. It's not an unpleasant film, but it takes off into some rather bizarre directions, a few of them surreal in nature, which provides the twists and turns director Mitchell Lichtenstein is angling to achieve. While I'm mixed on the film, I must admit it's nice to have the filmmaker back with a more human perspective, after his last film "Teeth" detailed the adventures of a woman with a murderous vagina.
Living in a buffered state of comfort with money to spare and idealized memories to keep her happy, Jayne (Parker Posey) is forced to contend with the harshness of life when her sister Laura (Demi Moore) beckons her to Pittsburgh to assume care for their unraveling elderly father, Joe (an aptly cast Rip Torn). Returning to the confusion of her youth, Jayne is forced to confront the psychological complexities of her life, while also learning of Joe's less than saintly existence, personified by his live-in mistress, a crackhead named Shelly (Ellen Barkin). Dealing with Joe's growing dementia, her husband's overwhelming stress as the son of a famous artist, and dodging Laura's probing ways, Jayne is thwacked by reality for the very first time, struggling to hold on while her life turns upside down.
Assuming Jayne's bewildered perspective on life, "Happy Tears" floats around in the vast space between memory and reality. The character is not an easy ditz primed for a rude awakening, but a brittle woman used to the comfort of her mind, which has helped to wash away sins blatantly in front her eyes, while cleansing her recollections of youth. Lichtenstein's screenplay focuses on this spastic awakening within a woman who's done a masterful job keeping pain at arm's length. Through a life affixed to the art world, Jayne is handed a series of surreal asides by the director to help visualize her disconnect from the business of honesty, sold impressively through Posey's jittery, capable performance and an unexpected series of visual effects.
"Happy Tears" is an unusual film, but its eccentricity doesn't always equate to satisfying drama. In trying to keep Jayne's mania a secret corner of her mind, the film's emotional reach is blunted, making the picture more about observation than investment. It's a frustrating reservation that keeps the feature away from becoming a truly engaging experience, which doesn't seem right considering the script's attention to the details of sisterhood, paternal disillusionment, and grief. The director aims more for the gags than the heart, which ends up flattening the picture, growing less compelling the more the movie dwells on frigid bits of oddity. The actors try to inject their own sense of significance, but Lichtenstein pushes it all away, more comfortable standing on a dreary middle ground than taking a chance with a soulful excavation.
The anamorphic widescreen (1.78:1 aspect ratio) presentation on "Happy Tears" is capable of handling the picture's limited visual scheme. A few lighting changes and location moves are sold comfortably with hues intact, a necessary effort to help sell the film's running gag about Jayne's puzzlingly colored boots. Black levels are supportive, while skintones are sustained, contributing to a relaxed viewing experience.
The 5.1 Dolby Digital sound mix is primarily frontal, concentrating on dialogue exchanges and overall screen anxiety. A few of the soundtrack cuts provide a more enveloping sense of dimension, but the moments are fleeting, while directional activity is kept to a minimum. The track has some weight, but it's primarily focused on conveying the verbal intent. A 2.0 track is also available.
English and Spanish subtitles are included.
The feature-length audio commentary with writer/director Mitchell Lichtenstein is a complete bore. The filmmaker has very little to share outside of some dull factoids and location background information, spending more time in utter silence. There's so much quiet time, there were a few moments where I thought I'd accidentally shut off the commentary. Don't bother with this, Lichtenstein has nothing to say about his film.
A Theatrical Trailer is included.
Cheating a bit with a few convenient developments in the third act, Lichtenstein gets "Happy Tears" halfway there. It's rarely dull and confidently guided by the cast, but it offers little in the way of overall impact, despite creative visual flourishes and a screenplay rooted in the devastating game of personal reflection. It's cold to the touch.