Ah, there’s just nothing like a wedding to bring a family together… to fight over all the old rivalries, disputes, and long-buried secrets. At least that’s what a recent spate of indie films would have us believe. In 2008 alone, we had back-to-back illustrations of this theme, with Jonathan Demme’s Rachel Getting Married and Noah Baumbach’s Margot at the Wedding released practically within days of each other. Demme’s film was the far more heralded, thanks largely to an Oscar-nominated, against-type, lead performance from Anne Hathaway as a narcissistic, recovering drug addict dealing with the guilt and shame of a family tragedy she caused. It also marked Demme’s return to his indie roots after the disappointments of the bloated, baffling Beloved, the utterly forgettable remake of The Manchurian Candidate, and The Truth About Charlie, an even more negligible remake of Charade.
But now we have a new entry to vie against Rachel for the sub-genre’s garter-belt in the form of Another Happy Day, the writing/directing debut of Sam Levinson, whose father Barry Levinson began his esteemed writing/directing career with Diner (1982), which was also a low-budget ensemble dramedy built around a wedding, and which helped launch several notable acting careers, including that of Ellen Barkin, who now stars in and produces Another Happy Day. So it all comes full circle.
But only one can wear the “Weddings are Family Reunions from Hell” bridal veil, so it’s time for a good old-fashioned Smackdown to settle this thing. Brides… grooms…? To your corners!
Oh, it’s going to be a long wedding weekend in Annapolis for Lynn (Barkin), a divorced mother of four. She’s got her two younger sons in tow, one (Daniel Yelsky) a pudgy, dorky know-it-all with Asperger’s syndrome, and the other (Ezra Miller) a malcontent, pill-popping, wise-ass teenager with Tourette’s. Her daughter Alice (Kate Bosworth), an ex-drug addict who habitually cuts herself, will be showing up and facing her estranged, formerly abusive father Paul (Thomas Haden Church) and his bitchy trophy wife Patty (Demi Moore).
Her one “normal” child, the groom, Dylan (Michael Nardelli), was raised by Paul and Patty, whom Lynn hates, and vice versa. There’s also her haughty, judgmental mother (Ellen Burstyn) and demented, ailing father (George Kennedy) and her giggling, gossipy sisters (Siobhan Fallon and Diana Scarwid) and another ex-husband Lee (Jeffrey DeMunn) who seems cheerfully oblivious to all the tension, and if all this sounds a bit complicated, I apologize, because it actually is extremely complicated, certainly far more so than…
Beautiful, quick-witted, but completely messed-up, recovering drug addict Kym (Hathaway) gets a weekend pass from rehab to come home for the wedding of her sister Rachel (Rosemarie DeWitt) to musician Sidney (Tunde Adebimpe) and begins causing trouble almost immediately. After a quickie with the best man, Kieran (Mather Zickel), she snatches the role of maid of honor away from Rachel’s condescending best friend Emma (Anisa George) and nearly wrecks the rehearsal dinner with a shamelessly self-absorbed toast.
Pretty soon, Kym and Rachel are arguing tooth and nail, while their ever-cheerful father (Bill Irwin) desperately tries to keep the peace. Eventually, we learn of the tragic accident Kym caused while on drugs that still haunts the family, particularly her estranged mother (Debra Winger), whose smiling facade masks some pretty frightening rage.
Also, apropos of nothing, Sidney and dad have a dishwasher-loading contest. Don’t ask.
As with our recent Hunter Thompson Smackdown, we’re faced with the question: Would you rather watch too much of a movie, or not enough of one? Another Happy Day is as insanely overstuffed as Rachel Getting Married is padded with huge wads of nothing, so it largely comes down to that question.
AHD is so densely packed with subplots and back-story and supporting characters and disease-of-the-week that it’s a) difficult to get emotionally involved with any of the characters or their stories, and b) just plain hella confusing. Is Paul the father of the elder two children, or the stepfather? If he’s their father, then is Lee the father of the younger two? Is there a third guy that the movie didn’t even have room for? And if Paul is only Alice and Dylan’s stepfather, then what’s the big deal about him meeting Alice again, and why did he get to raise Dylan, and why does he completely ignore the younger two, presumably his biological children, and vice versa?
So yeah, it’s hard to keep straight, which makes it hard to care about the emotional stakes in several scenes, but what keeps it all watchable are Levinson’s sharp and funny dialogue (his father’s DNA shining through), and terrific supporting performances across the board. Yes, even from Moore and Bosworth. Barkin is still a fascinating and alluring actress, and it’s great to see her return to center stage, even if it’s playing the most exhaustingly tear-shedding role since Brenda Blethyn in Secrets and Lies. Church and Burstyn do their usual stellar jobs as well, but the movie really belongs to Ezra Miller, playing the most messed-up character of all, simultaneously suffering from Tourette’s-induced fits of rage, an addiction to powerful pain-killers, gender confusion and general teenage horniness, authority resentment and angst. Miraculously, the young actor manages to make this guy likable, funny, and the one we grow the most attached to over the course of the movie. Come to think of it, he and Kym from the other movie would have had a lot to talk about.
Certainly his presence would have enlivened the dead spots in Rachel, and boy howdy, are there some dead spots. Props to Demme and screenwriter Jenny Lumet (wisely finding a new line of work after her legendarily awful acting job in her father Sidney’s otherwise solid thriller Q&A) for trying to give us that “you are there” sensation for this wedding weekend, but sharing what seems like every single moment of it, no matter how mundane, seems a tad much. The rehearsal dinner scene, which features a good 10 minutes of mostly generic toasts, feels longer than most actual rehearsal dinners. There are lengthy musical interludes, and did I mention the dishwasher contest? No, seriously, the entire movie stops in its tracks for a contest to see who can load the dishwasher the fastest. It may have been a breakthrough moment when, according to IMDb, Lumet actually witnessed a similar event involving her father and Bob Fosse, but here it plays just like what it is – two guys loading a dishwasher.
It’s a shame that the padding does so much damage, because when the movie stays on track, focusing on Kym and her conflicts with her sister and parents, it’s highly watchable. The jiggly, hand-held camera work and heavy improvisation give all the arguments an immediate, documentary-like feel, and everyone plays beautifully off each other, particularly Hathaway and the luminous DeWitt (Mad Men, United States of Tara), whose superb work deserved every bit the attention that Hathaway’s got. Winger’s role is small, but when she finally erupts at Hathaway, it’s truly a jolting, frightening moment that reminds us just how good she can be. So it’s all the more aggravating to have to sit through such tedium to get to these nuggets. It’s a movie that will make you eternally grateful for the fast-forward button.
I can’t fully embrace either film, but what it boils down to is that Another Happy Day, while certainly flawed, rarely bored me, while Rachel Getting Married did so frequently. If only there were a way of melding the two into a perfect balance of narrative density and whimsy, but until then, forced to choose between being overwhelmed and being made impatient, we have to say “I do” to our winner, Another Happy Day.