“Happy Endings” delivers on its title and then some. The big, offbeat ensemble tale from writer-director Don Roos piles on enough finales to rival the endless conclusion of the last “Lord of the Rings” movie.
What’s on screen is almost always interesting, yet Roos lets his love affair with his characters drag on so long, their loosely linked stories begin to lose potency.
Roos showed with his 1998 edgy charmer “The Opposite of Sex” that he tends to like tidy resolutions. But in “Happy Endings,” he appends so many epilogues that, with one character excepted, barely anything is left to ponder about these people once the lights go up.
Their lives are so sloppily engaging and laced with dysfunctional absurdity, it’s a bit of a disservice to wrap up their loose ends so neatly and drag out their afterlives to such lengths that audiences start wondering if the movie will ever finish.
Fans of “The Opposite of Sex” will be glad to know “Happy Endings” feels more like a worthy follow-up to that black comedy than did Roos’ actual follow-up, 2000’s “Bounce,” a sappy romantic drama starring Gwyneth Paltrow and Ben Affleck.
“Happy Endings” is so busy with main characters and their twisted relations, you almost need a scorecard.
“Opposite of Sex” co-star Lisa Kudrow is Mamie, a woman into racy role-playing with her masseuse boyfriend, Javier (Bobby Cannavale). Shady character Nicky (Jesse Bradford) bursts into Mamie’s life, using a taboo secret from her rebel teen years to blackmail her into collaborating on his exploitative documentary film.
Mamie’s stepbrother Charley (Steve Coogan), who has a happy relationship with boyfriend Gil (David Sutcliffe), becomes insanely suspicious that their lesbian friends Pam (Laura Dern) and Diane (Sarah Clarke) have pulled a fast one regarding the identity of the sperm donor who fathered their young son.
Temporarily homeless, golddigger Jude (Maggie Gyllenhaal) sets up house with Otis (Jason Ritter), a not-yet-out-of-the-closet gay man trying to convince his father, Frank (Tom Arnold), he’s straight.
Manipulative Jude sees an easy mark and gets her claws into lonely widower Frank, only to bewilder herself by finding a compassionate heart beneath her mercenary exterior.
Roos pulls a deft, and daft, juggling act switching from one character’s little human comedy to the next. As with “The Opposite of Sex,” he sneaks in a surprising amount of true drama amid the various farces and caustic humor.
Also like that earlier film, “Happy Endings” presents people behaving badly, yet lovably badly, able to pull back from misdeeds to find big and little grace notes around the bend.
The film is beautifully cast, the actors folding themselves into their characters and disappearing.
Kudrow plays Mamie as a toned-down version of her gloriously embittered ice queen from “Opposite of Sex.” Coogan is brilliantly befuddled, Bradford nicely postures as a not-totally-reprehensible man copping the facade of a sleaze, Dern and Clarke ably shift from loving extended family to imperiously indignant moms protecting their offspring.
Arnold proves very adept at playing the romantic sad sack, infusing his character with quiet decency and pathos.
Gyllenhaal’s Jude is the soul of “Happy Endings,” the character who learns the most about herself and bridges the widest gap toward a different life. The actress shows again that she is one of the most versatile young performers around, carrying Jude on a deeply moving transformation from rapacious she-devil to sacrificial lamb.
If only Roos could bring himself to let go of the characters sooner, forgo some of their interminable postscripts, “Happy Endings” would come to a happier ending. Good movies always should leave you wanting more, not less.