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In my experience, happy people tend not to be obsessed with happiness … or themselves. So it’s not surprising that Stefan Sagmeister’s quest for happiness, depicted at great length in his debut documentary, turns out not so well. Recently showcased at Toronto’s Hot Docs festival, The Happy Film is the sort of exercise in self-indulgence that would have members of the Greatest Generation tearing their hair out.
Not that his story lacks entertainment value. Sagmeister is a highly successful graphic designer and artist, a two-time Grammy Award winner for his innovative album cover designs for artists including The Rolling Stones and Jay-Z. His film, seven years in the making and co-directed by Ben Nabors and the late Hillman Curtis, is an offshoot of his hugely popular conceptual art exhibit, Happy Show, seen all over the world.
For all his material success, Sagmeister is clearly not a happy camper. The doc chronicles his efforts to alleviate his depression through three succeeding methods: meditation, therapy and drugs, with the process monitored by psychologist Jonathan Haidt, whose books include The Happiness Hypothesis: Finding Modern Truth in Ancient Wisdom.
Meditation does not do the trick for the filmmaker, despite the gorgeous scenery in Bali, where he attended a retreat. He complains of boredom and back pain during his months-long stay, although vacation-starved viewers will mostly be green with envy.
Therapy, at the hands of the no-nonsense Dr. Sheenah Hankin, doesn’t do much for him either. The psychotherapist who specializes in cognitive therapy advises her patient not to avoid conflict, and to do things that make him uncomfortable. To that end, he engages in such exercises as introducing himself to strange women on the street, which in New York City is more likely to result in an altercation than a coffee date.
But lo and behold, drugs, in the form of anti-depressants, do the trick. “I love big pharma!” Sagmeister exclaims. It doesn’t hurt that shortly after beginning his drug therapy program he meets and falls in love with a gorgeous, much younger woman who reciprocates his ardor. Asked by his cameraman how he’s feeling, Sagmeister tells him he’s “almost recklessly happy.” That is, until the relationship ends and he’s once again brought to his emotional knees.
The Happy Film doesn’t exactly provide depth to its provocative subject, and there are weird omissions in its storytelling. For instance, the untimely death of its original co-director is only briefly alluded to. Another problem is that Sagmeister isn’t nearly as charming as he seems to think he is, which limits our interest in whether he’s happy or not.
The film’s main strength — not surprisingly, considering its subject’s avocation — is its visual ingenuity. From its striking animal-themed opening credits to its use of bunraku puppetry to such whimsical sequences as Sagmeister being lifted into the sky by a giant balloon, The Happy Film makes clear that Sagmeister is happiest when he’s practicing his craft.
Venue: Hot Docs
Production: So So Productions
Directors: Stefan Sagmeister, Ben Nabors, Hillman Curtis
Producer: Ben Nabors
Director of photography: Ben Wolf
Editors: Sam Citron, Akiko Iwakawa-Grieve
Compoer: Colin Huebert
Not rated, 95 minutes
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