Ensemble comedies can be difficult, especially when you have so many strong actors playing interesting characters and you want to make sure they all get their fair shake on screen. While these two movies have very little else in common, they’re perfect examples of how an ensemble cast can be used to great and shoddy effect. Another Happy Day is the debut from Sam Levinson, son of Oscar-winning director Barry Levinson, while Flypaper is the first foray into indie filmmaking by a Hollywood veteran. Neither has been picked up for distribution as of yet, but it might surprise you how good one is compared to the other.
Another Happy Day
Written and directed by Sam Levinson
Starring Ellen Barkin, Ellen Burstyn, Ezra Miller, Demi Moore, Thomas Haden Church, Kate Bosworth, George Kennedy
A dysfunctional family reuniting with estranged members for a wedding is prime fodder both for drama but especially for comedy, but at this point, it’s hard not to feel like we’ve seen it all before when it comes to such a common premise. This may be why the debut from filmmaker Sam Levinson (son of Barry) is so refreshing, because it does approach the material from a different perspective.
Ellen Barkin (who also produced the film) plays Lynn, the neurotic mother of two sons, the elder teen Elliot (Ezra Miller) who has been sent to rehab four times, the younger Ben (Daniel Yelsky) is relatively normal, carrying around a video camera to document the weekend. Lynn’s eldest son Dylan is getting married, though he has spent most of his life being raised by Lynn’s ex-husband Paul (Thomas Haden Church) and his new(er) wife Patty (Demi Moore). Everyone in the family is particularly nervous about Lynn’s troubled daughter Alice (Kate Bosworth) showing up in this volatile environment, potentially exacerbating her problems. The question is whether Lynn can get through the weekend with so many unresolved issues with her ex.
Sam Levinson is clearly a chip off the old block as he knocks one out of the park with a movie that mixes humor and drama, sometimes even in the same scene. Lynn clearly has problems with her family, particularly her mother, played by Ellen Burstyn, who not only turned a blind eye when Lynn was being hit by Paul, but instead pulled her ex-husband further into the fold.
Barkin continues to be a strong and often underrated actress. While her generally tough and cynical approach to material sometimes is off-putting, she’s so perfect in this role because her character is one we can empathize with throughout, maybe because Barkin’s character shows more fallibility and weakness than we normally see from her. We would put money down right now that Barkin will finally get a well-deserved Oscar nomination for this role and performance.
Even so, this isn’t a one-woman show and it further proves that Ezra Miller is one of the strongest comic actors under 21, with a endearing way to deliver lines that falls somewhere between Justin Long and Robert Downey Jr. when he was just starting out. In this case, he has a great script to work from but it’s his timing that really kills with every line. Although he’s the funniest part of the movie, he’s not just spouting smartass remarks as he did in “City Island,” and we see a darkness to Elliot, both when he’s taking drugs but also when he lashes out at his mother in a shocking way.
There are very few films that have such perfect casting, not only with Ellens Burstyn and Barkin as mother and daughter but also having ’80s screen sirens Barkin and Demi Moore playing bitter nemeses, leading up to a terrific showdown just before the third act. Both women look terrific for their age, Moore playing up the ridiculousness of her character by dressing and acting way too young for her age. Burstyn is as grand as always as Lynn’s unsupportive mother and Kate Bosworth delivers a similarly nuanced performance as Lynn’s daughter Alice, whose self-inflicted damage is seen in a particularly harrowing scene.
The rest of the cast is equally terrific, and it’s especially nice to see George Kennedy as the dementia-suffering grandfather whose prescription medication Elliot is only too happy to raid. Each of the actors is allowed at least one funny line or moment or characterization. The laughs are solid, most of them coming from Miller, but also from Lynn’s catty sisters’ remarks about whomever is absent. Just as you’re getting accustomed to the family dynamics, Lynn’s current husband shows up, an older man who is just hilarious in how clueless he is. At the same time, the main topic of concern, Alice, shows up allowing Levinson to show how well he can keep the laughs going while allowing the drama to build an build until the wedding day when all the conflicting character dynamics come to a head. Levinson resists the temptation to overplay the wedding speeches, something that tends to be overused in most movies involving weddings.
The ending is surprisingly downbeat and poignant, making it hard to determine whether Lynn has found her closure or anything was achieved by this family reunion, but “Another Happy Day” is a movie that will make you laugh and cry in equal proportions and it signals the arrival of another terrific second generation filmmaker.
Directed by Rob Minkoff, Written by Jon Lucas and Scott Moore
Starring Tim Blake Nelson, Ashley Judd, Patrick Dempsey, Mekhi Phifer, Matt Ryan, Greg Germann, Octavia Spencer, Pruitt Taylor Vince, Jeffrey Tambor, John Ventimiglia, Adrian Martinez, Rob Huebel, Curtis Armstrong
The last-minute addition of a dark crime-comedy directed by the man behind movies ranging from “The Lion King” to “The Haunted Mansion” to the Sundance slate took many by surprise, especially with its premiere taking place after the Closing Night premiere. The fact that it was written by the guys behind “The Hangover” and had name stars like Patrick Dempsey and Ashley Judd was also promising. The major caveat is that the movie is based on a screenplay by Jon Lucas and Scott Moore written 12 years ago that they weren’t able to sell or produce until they had the hit and then Patrick Dempsey came along to produce and star in it. Therein lies two of the problems with the movie.
After a witty “Pink Panther”-like animated intro, we enter the bank that plays the central location for the story of two very different groups of bank robbers taking advantage of an opportunity where the bank’s security is down. There’s a trio of high-tech geniuses using all sorts of gadgets to break into the bank fault, and their polar opposites, two dumb hicks who go by the codenames “Peanut Butter and Jelly” (Tim Blake Nelson, Pruitt Taylor Vince) and have less lofty ambitions for their robbery. Caught in the middle are the various bank tellers and the bank’s customers including Dempsey’s Trip, a brainy but neurotic guy with obsessive-compulsive disorder who thinks there’s more to the robberies than meets the eye.
It probably won’t come as a surprise this is an old script and that it went so long not being produced because it’s just not a very strong take on the bank-robbing comedy we’ve seen so many times before.
It’s been quite some time since Patrick Dempsey has appeared in a good movie and his added involvement in the production of this one doesn’t do much to elevate him from his status as a one-note leading man. Trip is clearly meant to be a quirky character with all sorts of issues, but Dempsey plays him like an all-knowing mastermind constantly figuring out all the angles on the guys robbing the bank and explaining it to anyone else who will listen. The film constantly shifts to black and white during these expository scenes, something that’s quite agonizing by the third time this device is used. Ashley Judd is similarly poorly cast as a teller and Trip’s “meet cute” love interest, but there’s really nothing in their dynamic that’s new or interesting.
The only real saving grace of the film is that Tim Blake Nelson is in it, not really having to stretch much from his previous roles, but the only other pleasant surprise is bit player Adrian Martinez as a lascivious security guard who goes by the name “Mr. Clean”; you’ve seen this actor in dozens of movies and he actually shows that he can play the type of character actor roles we might normally see from Steven Root. Otherwise, there are just too many characters, mostly played as stereotypes, with few of them having anything interesting to add to the mix. For instance, what’s the point of the sexy blonde we see as the movie opens as she’s quickly blended into the background with no lines of dialogue, so why even bother having her in the movie except that she shares the same last name as one of the producers? Even Jeffrey Tambor seems to be phoning it in, probably realizing the role of bank manager is easy money and that his role is small enough he won’t be too embarrassed for his involvement.
“Flypaper” is very commercial, but in this case, that’s a bad thing, because it seems like a mainstream studio comedy that somehow got financed independently in hopes of finding breakout success. The writing is fairly sub-standard compared to Lucas and Moore’s recent work, most of the humor being obvious and slapsticky with none of the clever humor we’re used to seeing at Sundance, even throwing in a “Lion King” reference merely as a throwaway nod to Minkoff’s best movie. The truth is that Minkoff isn’t a strong enough director to pull off anything resembling cleverness in a natural and believable way, so most of the laughs come from awkward discomfort than actual enjoyment or entertainment.
It really feels like an odd choice for a Sundance that’s been chock full of solid comedies, but we have absolutely no doubt this awful madcap comedy will sell since there’s a lot of dumb moviegoers who will probably find at least some of the sophomoric humor funny and plenty of studios who will be more than willing to pay out a fraction of their normal production costs to cater to them.