Joyful Discomfort

Happy Endings

Happy Endings is a delightful and unfortunately neglected romp from Don Roos, featuring an abortion-clinic counselor, her masseur boyfriend, her gay brother and his partner, their lesbian friends, a grimy aspiring filmmaker, a gay drummer, his dad, and a drifting grifter who ensnares both the drummer and his pop. Surprisingly, a movie this overloaded with vibrant characters doesn’t feel the least bit messy and unwieldy.

And beyond that faint praise, Happy Endings has tons going for it. It has the unfixed, casually natural sexuality of Pedro Almodóvar, the existential screwball absurdity of I ♥ Huckabees, an offhanded but sincere interest in serious themes, and the voyeuristic allure of watching people try to extricate themselves from traps set by their own stupidity and greed. And it is suffused with such genuine warmth for its characters that it’s nearly infectious.

I was initially put off by Roos’ authorial intrusions — narrative asides literally push their way onto the screen — but was eventually won over by his narrative confidence and exuberance. And these textual interludes actually start to pay off as the movie progresses, sometimes providing amazingly subtle and clever exposition.

But aside from filmmaking craft, Roos is expert at melding entertainment with provocative, gently probing material. The biggest compliment I can give Happy Endings is to say that it tickled me and made me uncomfortable, sometimes at the same time. The second biggest compliment I can offer is that Tom Arnold (as the drummer’s father) in no way embarrasses himself or the movie.

MirrorMask

A Wizard of Oz for the 21st Century. Written by Neil Gaiman and directed by frequent collaborator Dave McKean, MirrorMask sends a wayward teen girl into a fantasy adventure so she can find her way home.

Mixing CGI and live action in an intentionally fantastic manner — bringing to mind the worn yet artificial texture of Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow — the movie looks fantastic and raises some complicated, heady issues for teenagers and their parents: the duality of pubescence, the fluidity of identity, and the way parents force their wills on their children.

But the fundamental message is too simplistic — when you do something nasty, apologize — and the movie’s aggressive oddness makes it a wearing and wearying (rather than invigorating) experience.

Asylum

My relationship with Asylum dates back nearly a decade, when I read Patrick McGrath’s novel and was miffed that it was so damned different from his earlier books and stories. Part of the “new gothic” movement, McGrath’s writing was creepy, atmospheric, and uneasy, yet it was internal to the point of extreme social isolation. The Grotesque is told by someone who cannot speak and can barely move, while Spider is a case study of the unreliable narrator.

With Dr. Haggard’s Disease, McGrath began to expand his scope, toning down the psychological horror and introducing doomed romance. Asylum furthered the trend, and the more-literate version of me might have bitched: “If I wanted to read fucking Wuthering Heights, I’d read fucking Wuthering Heights.” (To its credit, Asylum has more sex. I think. I’ve never read Wuthering Heights.)

This is to say that my initial problem with Asylum had less to do with the work than with my expectations. My problem with last year’s filmed version is with the movie, because I had no expectations going in.

Directed by David Mackenzie and written by Patrick Marber (the playwright behind Closer) and Chrysanthy Balis, Asylum has a certain competent clarity but little to say. Natasha Richardson stars as a psychiatrist’s wife who begins a passionate affair with a patient at the asylum where her husband works, and ends up the central figure in a bizarre sexual-medical daisy chain. Do you think things might end badly for everyone involved?

The treatment is marginally effective, particularly in the way it gently subverts expectations. It’s not that you can’t see what’s ahead; rather, it comes more quickly than you imagined, and you’re left wondering: What next?

Marber and Balis are also good at emphasizing the gender and power politics of Asylum. Richardson’s character continually finds herself impotent, no matter whether the relationship is legal, sexual, or medical.

Unfortunately, the unsubtle message of the movie is that women are trapped in the asylum of the patriarchy — those invisible walls! There’s little thematic depth or nuance to Asylum, and its characters — with the exception of a doctor played by Ian McKellan — are thin and hackneyed.

The process of condensing a novel for the screen generally chops off essential limbs while simplifying it for consumption as a two-hour film. In this case, the core of Asylum appears intact, yet it’s so streamlined and trim that all the psychological complexity, all the messiness that should be part of this tale of madness, obsession, and control, has been lost. It’s an outline.

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