Happy, Happy - SideReel Review
One can think of few cinematic themes as tired as marital infidelity -- a subject that’s been examined tens of thousands of times onscreen. The topic still carries the potential for riveting emotional insights and explosive drama, but it now needs some sort of additional twist to keep it fresh and alive. The best recent example was probably Todd Field’s ingenious Little Children, which told the story of an affair but used an extremely complex and sophisticated voice-over to deceive the audience along with the lovers. Not only does Anne Sewitsky’s similarly themed comedy-drama Happy, Happy fail to reach such heights, it doesn’t even achieve liftoff.
Happy, Happy observes the dynamic between two married couples. For reasons that initially go unstated, Sigve (Henrik Rafaelsen) and Elisabeth (Maibritt Saerens) decide to relocate from the city to the country, accompanied by their adopted black son Noa (Ram Shihab Ebedy). Husband and wife strike up an instant friendship with next-door neighbors Erik (Joachim Rafaelsen) and Kaja (Agnes Kittelsen), despite Kaja’s pervasive tactlessness and Elisabeth’s reservations about the slightly coarse couple. For a time, tensions bubble beneath the surface -- especially as troubled Eirik and Kaja stare with wonder at the new acquaintances who appear to have made their nuptials work sans issues. Then the bough breaks, as Kaja decides to put Elisabeth and Sigve’s marriage to the ultimate test.
As stated above, infidelity is a frequent subject of narrative films. It is also rarely done well. One of the greatest of all literary chroniclers of extramarital affairs was John Updike, who saw (and understood, and explored) all of the bizarre psychological roles that adultery can play for a married couple. In Happy, Happy, one keeps wishing for that same sort of complexity transposed to the screen, but we get only shallow, simplistic insights -- two-dimensional explanations about why the characters behave in the way that they do (with a last-minute revelation about one character that is visible from a mile away).
The film has other problems, as well. In what was probably an effort to develop some originality and depth, Sewitsky includes musical asides sung by a quirky four-personal vocal group, which work to impart a tonal counterpoint to the onscreen events (and that stylistically recall the appearances of Jonathan Richman and company in There’s Something About Mary). In the beginning, these cutaways -- most of which feature lip-synched performances of old American spiritual songs -- seem excessively sardonic, as when the performers mouth the Blind Boys of Alabama tune "(I’m So Glad I Got) Good Religion" seconds after an erotic sex scene. The writer/director tries to use the musical asides to transition into more-earnest material as the picture rolls forward, but it doesn’t work -- not after the smugness of some of those early numbers leaves a rotten taste in our mouths.
A bizarre subplot involving the couples’ children also strikes one as wildly misaligned with the rest of the material on a thematic level. While his parents push the boundaries of commitment, Erik and Kaja’s primary-school-age son, Theodor (Oskar Hernas Brandso), strikes up an interracial friendship with Noa, and immediately begins reminding the other little boy of his African ancestry. "Years ago," he says, "I would have been the master, and you would have been the slave." Over the course of several scenes, the white child then proceeds to emotionally and physically abuse the black child. This is horrifying, to be certain, but how is it, in any way, pertinent to the central marriage story? And how does one account for the odd resolution -- a head-scratching clip of Barack Obama that seems far more inscrutable to us than it does to the 10-year-old Noa?
Admittedly, Sewitsky does manage to coax some strong performances from her ensemble. But the film as a whole leaves a great deal to be desired, vacillating between thematic incoherence at one end of the spectrum, and tired old clichés at the other. At either extreme, it’s an unsatisfying, unconvincing misfire.