Screens Comrades in arm-twisting

Happy Endings contrives to bring its manipulative characters into uncomfortable proximity

What hath Robert Altman wrought? Answer: A glut of independent films that, crosscutting among a dozen or so disparate characters, establish links among those characters. Like Heights, Me and You and Everyone We Know, and other recent variations on the Altman formula, Happy Endings follows separate stories that ultimately converge. Writer and director Don Roos offers an irritating running commentary by means of titles flashed upon the side of the screen, but it is not until we see it replayed at the end thatwe understand the concussive opening sequence: A car collides with a woman who has run, weeping, into the street.

Laura Dern and Steve Coogan play best friends Charley and Pam, whose friendship is tested by Charley's suspicion that Pam's child with her lesbian partner is really his. And that's just one mix-up among many in Don Roos' Happy Endings.

Throughout Happy Endings, which derives its title from a masseur's slang for the orgasms he provides his eager women clients, characters collide with one another. They include Jude (Gyllenhaal), a perky golddigger who is able to seduce a young, gay musician named Otis (Ritter) by playing on his insecurities. Once she moves into his family house, Jude moves on to Otis' wealthy, widowed father, Frank (Arnold). Otis has a crush on Charley (Coogan), a restaurateur who lives monogamously with a male companion but at 17 was straight enough to impregnate his 16-year-old stepsister, Mamie (Kudrow). Though she pretended to get an abortion, she actually gave the child up for adoption, and now, 19 years later, a stranger informs Mamie that he is willing to put her in touch with her long-lost son. All that Nicky (Bradford), an aspiring filmmaker desperate to win an AFI fellowship with a moving real-life drama, asks for in return is permission to film the mother-child reunion. Mamie balks but proposes an alternative: Nicky and his camera will follow her egotistical boyfriend, Javier (Cannavale), at work, giving massages. The "reality" film will be called Happy Endings.

Happy Endings
Dir. & writ. Don Roos; feat. Lisa Kudrow, Steve Coogan, Jesse Bradford, Bobby Cannavale, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Jason Ritter, Laura Dern,Tom Arnold (R)
At their best, say Short Cuts or The Player, films built on interlocking characters provide an exhilarating sense of patterns hidden amid the randomness of existence. But Happy Endings, whose very title controls how its plots conclude, lacks any sense of spontaneity. The film reeks of contrivance, though that is highly appropriate to its theme. Virtually every human link within the film is based on manipulation or even outright blackmail: Nicky pressures Mamie to let him make a film, Mamie uses Nicky to find her son, Jude exploits Otis to tap his father's wealth, Javier takes advantage of needy women, etc. In the universe that Roos imposes on the viewer, coercion is the foundation of all human relationships. The ultimate manipulator is the filmmaker. "It's so hard to keep your ideals in this business," complains Nicky, the filmmaker-within-the-film, disingenuously, since it is not clear that he - or anyone else within the story - ever had ideals.

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