Writer/director Sam Levinson’s debut feature Another Happy Day takes the oft-referenced Tolstoy quote -- “happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way” -- to an extreme. Every member of the movie’s highly dysfunctional clan has experienced enough traumas to be the center of his or her own movie, but Levinson brings these damaged people together so they can cry and yell at each other every five minutes. It’s an exhausting picture.
Emotionally raw Lynn (Ellen Barkin) is traveling with her children -- articulate, cruel, drug-addicted teenager Elliot (Ezra Miller), and his younger brother, mildly autistic, video-camera-toting Ben (Daniel Yelsky) -- to the wedding of Dylan (Michael Nardelli), her son from a previous marriage. Lynn is always on edge, in large part because Dylan’s sister Alice (Kate Bosworth), who cuts herself to deal with the trauma she witnessed during the end of her parents’ marriage, will be seeing her father Paul (Thomas Haden Church) for the first time in years, and Lynn worries that confronting the past might do more harm to the fragile Alice.
Compounding matters are Lynn’s stern, judgmental mother Doris (Ellen Burstyn), who is in such deep denial about her former son-in-law that she’s still friendly with him, and Paul’s new wife Patty (Demi Moore), who takes every opportunity to remind Lynn that she raised Dylan, making Lynn feel even guiltier than she already does. On top of all this, the family’s ailing patriarch Joe (George Kennedy) is suffering from dementia, and Lynn’s two nattering sisters savor every opportunity to share all the icky details they learn about Lynn and her children. As the wedding approaches, the whole family occupy the same house, buried secrets are exposed, old wounds are confronted, and Elliot drinks, does drugs, and snarks his way through it all.
There’s a scene midway through Another Happy Day in which Elliot and his grandma have a breakfast conversation and Elliot argues that the family would be nicer to each other if everybody was together for a funeral rather than a wedding -- that sadness and not happiness is what keeps a family together. The entire movie has been constructed to prove that cynical point. Cynicism is in fact the dominating artistic principle at work in Another Happy Day; everybody treats everybody else horribly, all the time. There is no relief and no catharsis -- even when people are brave enough to tackle their interpersonal issues head-on, their pain and suffering aren’t diminished. The movie isn’t a series of scenes as much as it is a series of arguments, crying jags, fights, and sarcastic insults.
Barkin has the most screen time, and when the film is over you’ll be hard-pressed to think of a moment when she wasn’t crying, on the verge of crying, or screaming. It’s an impossible role to play, because Lynn isn’t anything other than her pain and neuroses, however understandable they are. It’s not clear what sort of person she would be if she wasn’t always dealing with trauma, and the movie is so infuriatingly one-note in its approach that you start to sympathize with her clueless sisters, who keep asking her to just get over it already.
One of the family members dies at the end of the movie, and what a wonderful death it is because never having to deal with any of these horrible people again has to be the best feeling in the world. Luckily, you don’t have to die to experience that emotion: You just have to wait for the credits to roll.
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