Happily (2021)

There’s a certain kind of low-budget indie comedy that’s packed with the hippest, funniest comedians you know . . . who just sorta sit around with nothing to do.  They’re not so much hangout films as they are grotesque wastes of talent.  What’s frustrating about the recent “dark romantic comedy” Happily is that starts as something conceptually, visually exciting in its first act, only to devolve into one of those comedy-scene talent wasters as it quickly runs out of ideas.  Happily opens with a wicked black humor and a heightened visual style that recalls what everyone was drooling over with Game Night back in 2018.  Unfortunately, it leads with all its best gags & ideas, so after a while you’re just kinda hanging out with hip L.A. comedians in a nice house – which isn’t so bad but also isn’t so great.

Joel McHale & Kerry Bishé star as a couple whose persistent happiness and mutual lust—as if they were still newlyweds after 14 years of marriage—crazes everyone around them.  Their cutesy PDA and ease with conflict resolution is first presented as a mild annoyance to their more realistically jaded, coupled friends.  Then, Stephen Root appears at their doorstep like the mysterious G-Man in Richard Kelly’s The Box, explaining that their lovey-dovey behavior is supernaturally deranged, a cosmic defect he needs to fix with an injectable fluorescent serum.  That Twilight Zone intrusion on the otherwise formulaic plot feels like it should be the start to a wild, twisty ride.  Instead, it abruptly halts the movie’s momentum, forcing it to retreat to a low-key couple’s getaway weekend in a bland Californian mansion with its tail tucked between its legs.

In its first half-hour, Happily is incredibly stylish for such an obviously cheap production.  Red color gels, eerie dreams, disco beats, and an infinite sea of repeating office cubicles overwhelm the familiarity of the film’s genre trappings, underlining the absurdity of its main couple’s commitment to their “happily ever after” romance.  Once it gets derailed into couples’ getaway weekend limbo, all that visual style and cosmic horror just evaporates.  The talented cast of welcome faces—Paul Scheer, Kirby Howell-Baptiste, Natalie Morales, Charlyne Yi, Jon Daly, Breckin Meyer, etc.—becomes the main draw instead of the dark Twilight Zone surrealism, which is a real shame.  There are plenty of other films where you could watch hipster comedians act like cruel, bitter assholes in a lavish locale.  The early style and humor of Happily promised something much more conceptually and aesthetically unique.

And since there isn’t much more to say about the toothless hangout comedy that Happily unfortunately devolves into, I’ll just point to a few recent titles on its budget level that are much more emphatically committed to the biting dark humor of their high-concept, anti-romantic premises: Cheap Thrills, The One I Love, and It’s a Disaster.  Those are good movies, and this is almost one too.

-Brandon Ledet

The Country Bears (2002)

Imagine if the infamous The Band documentary The Last Waltz was remade as a dramatic film where every actor was created by the animatronic technicians behind the Chuck E. Cheese house band. Now rework that premise into an 88 minute live action Disney comedy and you have the delightfully nightmarish flop The Country Bears from 2002. Much like other blatantly commercial misfires of pop culture past (Mac & Me, Super Mario Bros., Howard the Duck, Monster Trucks, etc.), The Country Bears‘s main draw is the disturbing novelty of its character design, the titular bears. The movie is too short and too ramshackle for the absurdity of its animatronic country musician bears to ever wear off, so every wiggle of their roboticized ears and every flicker in their dead robo-bear eyes registers as a crime against Nature. What distinguishes The Country Bears from other nightmarish misfires of shameless commercialism, however, is that its various goofs & gags can actually be genuinely funny on top of its overall surrealist novelty. Directed by Animaniacs writer (and Pinky & The Brain creator) Peter Hastings, the film is somehow successful as a straightforward kids’ comedy (for the kids who don’t wake up screaming later that evening, at least).

Our protagonist and audience surrogate is a preteen bear robot voiced by Haley Joel Osment, who opens the film asking human parents (including Steven Tobolowsky), “Am I adopted?” over the breakfast table. His human brother, a generic teen bully with early 00s frosted tips, is befuddled that his parents tell a white lie in that moment and that no one seems to care that Beary Barrington is a bear, taking it into his own hands to tell the truth. This inspires Beary to run away from home on a road trip to the concert hall where his all-time favorite band, The Country Bears, used to play regularly. Discovering that the robo-bear version of The Greatful Dead is currently broken up and the concert hall is in danger of being demolished, Beary vows To Get The Band Back Together in order to save the historic space that stands as his bear culture mecca. The plot is mostly a series of set pieces from there as he collects bear musicians voiced by Stephen Root, Toby Huss, Don Henley, Bonnie Raitt (in a disturbing bear form the producers are hoping you’ll find sexually attractive), etc. for the climactic, day-saving concert. Standing in the way of success is a demolition-happy real estate developer played by an especially deranged Christopher Walken and a set of idiot cops tasked with bringing Beary home to his “family.”

Watching these hideous robo-bears play their giant guitars, banjos, and harmonicas, it’s easy to fantasize about how much better this film could be with a punk or metal soundtrack than it is with the lackluster country pop served up here. There is something subversive about dedicating something so visually bizarre to a wholesomely American artform, though, and no matter how bland the music gets, the bears never stop being fascinating to look at, whereas if this film were made in the last five years they’d be rendered in grey mush CGI. As the winking-at-the-audience cameos from unexpected celebrities like Queen Latifah, Wyclef Jean, and Elton John pile up, the movie’s normalized commercial sheen becomes even more bizarre in juxtaposition with its hideous character designs & zany Animaniacs humor. Sped-up bus chases, cops getting beaten senseless by automated car washes, musical arm pit farting, and old lady diner patrons pulling saxophones out of nowhere amount to the logic of a music video or a Saturday morning cartoon, which makes the VH1 Behind the Music-inspired premise all the more ridiculous. The film never pauses long enough to allow you to wonder how this human/bear society functions socially or why Beary Barrington would have a Nine Inch Nails poster on his bedroom wall. The whole thing just barrels through diners, weddings, car washes, dive bars, and music video shoots toward the inevitable, day-saving concert climax. It comes and goes so quickly and with such bizarre enthusiasm that I barely had time to notice that I was constantly smiling throughout.

-Brandon Ledet

Get Out (2017)

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Although they’re often (rightly) called out for their inherent misogyny, there’s a popular reading of slasher films that claims they’re subversively, politically progressive because they ask a traditionally male audience to identify & empathize with a female victim’s POV. Aligning horror nerds’ sympathies with a Final Girl archetype might not seem like the height of radical discourse, especially considering what typically happens to those characters on-screen, but it does have a cultural value to it that might not be the first thing that comes to mind when discussing sleazy 80s slashers. The directorial debut of comedian Jordan Peele recognizes this function of horror audience sympathies and shifts its culturally critical eye from feminism to racial politics. Instead of a virginal, scantily clad blonde running from a masked killer with an explicitly phallic weapon, Get Out aligns its audience with a young black man put on constant defense by tone deaf, subtly applied racism. Part horror comedy, part racial satire, and part mind-bending sci-fi, Peele’s debut feature not only openly displays an encyclopedic knowledge of horror as an art form (directly recalling works as varied as Rosemary’s Baby, The Stepford Wives, Under the Skin, and any number of Wes Craven titles), it also applies that knowledge to a purposeful, newly exciting variation on those past accomplishments. Get Out knows what makes horror effective as a genre and finds new avenues of cultural criticism to apply that effect to instead of just mirroring what came before, no small feat for a debut feature.

Our de facto Final Girl protagonist is a young, hip photographer visiting his white girlfriend’s family home for the first time. Isolated in a secluded, wealthy suburb, he’s faced with the outnumbered, paranoid feeling of being the only black man in a sea of white, smiling faces. The only other POC in his hosts’ community are “the help”, who have an unnatural, creepily robotic way of acting (assumedly in a direct nod to The Stepford Wives). Instead of tackling the blatant, violently hateful kind of racism that would more typically be skewered in this kind of movie, however, Get Out finds horror in racism’s much subtler, more difficult to pin down forms. The girlfriend’s family is initially very cordial with our Final Boy, but in an awkward, discomforting way, plagued with a wide variety of micro-aggressions he awkwardly smiles through to avoid confrontation. By using phrases like “my man,” “thang,” and “Sup, fam?” in an attempt to make him feel welcome and at ease, the family only makes his presence feel all the more alien. They declare proudly that they can’t possibly be racist, since they enthusiastically voted for Obama. Twice! The girlfriend, in turn, makes a big show of pointing out every subtle slight in an attempt to seem cool & above it all. Nothing about the scenario is cool. Through eerie atmosphere, mood-setting jump scares, and surreal nightmare imagery, Peele slowly, steadily reveals the ugly spirit lurking under this try-hard liberalism that reduces a human being into a cultural specimen. And when the corrupt, corrosive nature of that sentiment comes violently crashing to the surface, it’s exposed to be just as cruel & terrifying as the kind of racism usually depicted through white hoods & burning crosses.

Get Out is a good, well made genre film that then becomes spectacularly great in its violent, no fucks given third act. Peele’s well-rounded screenplay brings every stray theme, from the racial discomfort to the main character’s guilt over past inaction to metaphorical motifs as small as roadkill deer, back around for a glorious, purposeful conclusion. The seemingly well-meaning, casual racism that had been lurking under the surface like a paranoid delusion is exposed as a horrifically grotesque monster that reduces black men to physical objects, targets for the white & wealthy’s fascination & possessive entitlement. Additionally, Peele filters this thinly veiled maliciousness through a surreal nightmare where reality is warped by perception-shifting hypnosis. If I had one complaint about Get Out it’d be that it could’ve spent a lot more time diving into the otherworldly imagery & paralyzing implications of its hypnotic dream-space, known in-film as The Sunken Place, instead of chasing tension-cutting meta humor with the film’s comic relief character. The Final Boy’s best friend phones in periodically to act as an audience surrogate, asking questions like, “How are you not scared right now?” & directly calling out the girlfriend’s family as the creeps they so obviously are. He’s an amusing presence in the film, but he’s one that pushes Get Out away from the more unique touches of its modern horror surrealism into a more overly familiar horror/sketch comedy tone. However, Peele still gets the most he can out of his subtle nightmare plot’s moment to moment creepiness, especially from always-welcome character actors Catherine Keener & Stephen Root, and you can tell he made this passion project from the perspective of a life-long horror fan who knows exactly how the format works most efficiently. From Get Out‘s cultural criticism to its play with Final Girl tropes to the gloriously bizarre territory of its third act reveals & Sunken Place surrealism, it’s an impressive, striking debut feature, a great first go for a filmmaker who hopefully has a long career of these horrific, satirical mind-benders ahead of him.

-Brandon Ledet