‘Happy Tears’: Dueling tones

February 18, 2010

A bumpy ride of tonal shifts between the tragic, the absurd and the everyday, Mitchell Lichtenstein’s “Happy Tears” repeatedly confounds expectations.


Eventually, it finds a groove and takes you to an ending that is at once undeservedly happy and surprisingly agreeable. But it’s a journey that sometimes feels like a thousand miles.


When “Happy Tears” succeeds, it’s because of Lichtenstein’s almost random plotting – and because of his outstanding eye for casting. The plotting seems drawn in equal parts from a soap opera, a fable and a surrealist comic book. The casting is spot on, led by the unlikely duo of Parker Posey and Demi Moore.


They play the Deakes sisters, both of whom have escaped the Pittsburgh house in which they grew up. But now both are trapped there again, caring for their father, Joe (Rip Torn), whose increasing dementia makes him a candidate for an institution.


Moore plays Laura, the older sister, who has protected Jayne (Posey), the younger sister, from the harsh realities of their family life since they were children. That includes luring Jayne away from the house each afternoon to the playground until their mother got home from work, while Joe dallied in the house with playmates of his own. (“They weren’t all hookers,” he says, by way of apology).


Both sisters now live in the San Francisco Bay area, where Laura is a water-quality analyst, married to a bisexual masseur and scraping to make ends meet. Jayne is a princess of sorts, married to the wealthy son of a dead contemporary artist, casually spending $2,800 on a pair of boots while avoiding the trip to Pittsburgh to deal with her father.


When she finally arrives, she’s confronted with a reality she’d rather avoid: that her father is incontinent and incorrigible, involved with a woman (Ellen Barkin in a very funny smaller role) who claims to be a nurse but, in fact, is a crack whore.


There’s talk of buried treasure that Joe claims is in the backyard, of Jayne’s longing to have a child, of what their mother had to put up with. Jayne is also avoiding dealing with the mental deterioration of her husband (Christian Camargo), who is spiraling away from sanity under the pressure of dealing with his late father’s artistic legacy.


Legacy – it hovers over everyone’s head in this film. And it’s all about daddy issues, from Jayne’s unwillingness to believe the worst about her outlaw father to her husband’s unwillingness to pass on his own neuroses to his children.


Lichtenstein’s juggling act with tone sometimes works, sometimes jars. It’s made more palatable by the performances, particularly by Posey and Moore as believable sisters, alternately scrapping and supportive.


Posey has played this kind of character before: willfully disconnected, unwilling to cope with reality. Lichtenstein adds a bit of his own filigree, giving her fantasies that pull her out of the moment (though some work better than others). Moore, on the other hand, shows something new here: a blend of toughness, compassion and weariness that makes her seem more human than she has in ages, if ever. And Torn? What can you say other than that he’s highly convincing as a wily, functioning alcoholic who’s neither as crazy nor as composed as he wants us to believe?


“Happy Tears” challenges the audience’s assumptions about what kind of movie it’s going to be, alternately getting right up in its face and then playing nice, suspiciously so. It works more often than it doesn’t – but it never quite goes where you expect. And that’s rare enough to be noteworthy.


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