Happy Family -- Film Review



ROME -- "Happy Family," from Gabriele Salvatores (the director of the Oscar-winning "Mediterraneo"), is an adaptation of a successful play, itself a modern reworking of Pirandello's "Six Characters in Search of an Author." Unfortunately, the references don't end there. Depending on how you look at it, the colorful and light-hearted film is either a tribute to cinema or simply art imitating art.

Audiences not overly familiar with the allusions will find "Happy Family" enjoyable, and apparently an American remake is on the table, which would bring the film full circle as it heavily tips its hat to "Deconstructing Harry," "The Royal Tenenbaums," "The Usual Suspects," "Annie Hall" and "The Graduate" (the soundtrack is almost entirely Simon and Garfunkel). But these films are so deeply ingrained in the collective imagination that comparisons come up short, especially since the film's own storyline breaks no new ground.

The set design and costumes are the film's strongest points. The surreal, chromatic schemes -- entire sequences are decked out in bright reds, yellows, greens and so on -- are bold and give "Happy Family" its clearest source of whimsy.

Recently dumped screenwriter Ezio (Fabio De Luigi) is having trouble banging out a story about two neurotic families whose paths cross because their teenage children want to marry. The family members (played by Diego Abatantuono and Margherita Buy and a superb Fabrizio Bentivoglio, among others) introduce themselves to the camera in the first part of the film, too often repeating what other characters have said.

Ezio soon writes himself into his script (and into a love story) while the characters bug him about having bigger, better roles. And finding the proper ending to a proper story -- not "something artsy that only critics will like."

Ezio also speaks to the camera, explaining that most people live by their fears, that life is film and film life. But film is also artifice, and it's more interesting to watch personalities and problems unfold with subtlety than be told what they are. Neither De Luigi nor the film (written by Salvatores and Alessandro Genovesi, adapting his play) has enough of the Woody Allen touch, of making neurotic fears both smart and farcical.

Bentivoglio gently steals each of his scenes as a dying pater familias, and is best when playing off the ever-lovable Abatantuono (the other father of the story). The film's best moment comes two-thirds of the way in, when the men share a joint shortly upon meeting, and are convinced they've met before.

Both starred in Salvatores' "Marrakech Express" (1989) and subsequent "On Tour" (1990) and the deja vu is a nod to those films. Once again though, the nostalgia for the original is greater than what we're seeing on screen, even if by then the characters have settled into interacting with one another more than with us.

A black and white sequence of a nocturnal Milan -- of real faces and places not connected to the film -- accompanied by Chopin is a beautiful but disjointed element.

Opens: March 26 (Italy)
Production companies: Colorado Film, RAI Cinema
Sales: Rai Trade
Cast: Fabio De Luigi, Diego Abatantuono, Fabrizio Bentivoglio, Margherita Buy, Carla Signoris, Valeria Billelo, Gianmaria Biancuzzi, Alice Croci
Director: Gabriele Salvatores
Screenwriter: Alessandro Genovesi, Gabriele Salvatores
Based on the play by: Alessandro Genovesi
Producer: Maurizio Totti
Director of photography: Italo Petriccione
Production designer: Rita Rabassini
Costume designer: Patrizia Chericoni
Editor: Massimo Fiocchi
No rating, 90 minutes