Film Review: Happy Tears

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Berlin International Film Festival -- Competition

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BERLIN - Mitchell Lichtenstein's first feature as a director, 2007's "Teeth," was a weird-funny film that spoofed horror film conventions while mixing in a bit of social satire in telling a wicked female revenge story. The actor-turned-director's follow-up movie, "Happy Tears," is simply weird. The funny has gone missing.

The weirdness begins with old-age dementia, but the overactive fantasy life of one character and an unwise mix of drugs and alcohol by others keep the levels of reality on screen in flux as a family's personal dynamics spin out of control. A viewer can get lost in this weirdness.

Despite an impressive cast that includes Demi Moore and Parker Posey as two very different sisters, "Happy Tears" appears headed more for cult status than wide release. The title tips you that the writer-director wants to keep things light despite chaotic and even tragic turns the story takes. That title also happens to belong to a painting by the director's famous father, Roy Lichtenstein.

The movie itself deals with the legacy fathers bequeath to children, whether they mean to or not. Joe (Rip Torn) is fading both mentally and physically, which forces his two daughters, Jayne (Posey) and Laura (Moore), to travel to Pittsburgh to assess the situation.

Failing though he is, Joe nevertheless has a live-in "girlfriend" in Shelly (Ellen Barkin), a crack head who doesn't even disguise her exploitation of the old man for whom she maintains a certain fondness. She does, however, pretend to be a nurse to cover up her frequent absences.

Jayne, the irresponsible daughter, does her own share of drugs, which may or may not account for her strange visions triggered by anxiety or fear. Laura, the responsible and practical daughter, sees that Joe, diagnosed as terminally ill, will need continual nursing for the remainder of his life.

Echoing the recent film "The Savages," this sibling intervention with an increasingly senile father drags family skeletons from the closet along with Laura's revelation to Jayne that their parents' marriage was not the idealized love story she always imagined. But unlike "The Savages," "Happy Tears" doesn't stay focused. It keeps running off in different directions.

There's a whole subplot about digging up some treasure Joe has always insisted he buried in the backyard. Jayne keeps retreating into her daydreams or perhaps some are flashbacks -- it's hard to tell. Then the film keeps cutting to Jayne's husband Jackson (Christian Camargo), who seems to be having his own mental meltdown back in San Francisco.

It's not clear what meaning to read into these parallel stories. The neurotic Jackson is falling apart while managing the estate of his late father, a famous painter. But his meltdown story doesn't really fit well into the Joe-meltdown story.

Lichtenstein clearly likes to work outside of genres and against expectations. Which is fine, but as a filmmaker he is still searching for the right tone to approach his unusual material. Drama and comedy keep colliding instead of meshing. Scenes come off flat and awkward. And, in this instance, the visual effects for the various fantasies are disappointing banal.

Among the actors, Posey has too much to do and Moore not enough. Posey is so busy in every scene with her anxieties and frustrations that you wonder if she has inherited her dad's dementia. Moore plays the one sane family member -- although a major fly in the ointment of her life gets revealed near the end -- which pretty much makes her the movie's straight man.
Torn and Barkin mostly overplay their roles, but clearly this is what their director wanted. Lichtenstein likes eccentricities pushed and drama exaggerated. He likes to build contradictions into scenes, which is yet another reason for that title "Happy Tears."

Tech contributions are serviceable but unremarkable.

Talent Beach Productions, Pierpoline Productions
Cast: Demi Moore, Parker Posey, Rip Torn, Ellen Barken, Christian Camargo, Billy Magnussen, Sebastian Roche, Roger Rees
Director/screenwriter: Mitchell Lichtenstein
Producers: Joyce Pierpoline, Mitchell Lichtenstein
Executive producer: Gregory Elias, Timothy J. DeBaets, Jonathan Gray
Director of photography: Jamie Anderson
Production designer: Paul Avery
Music: Robert Miller
Costume designer: Stacey Battat
Editor: Joe Landauer
Sales: Cinetic Media
No rating, 95 minutes