How is it that “three years late” can simultaneously be “right on time”? Had Michael Almereyda’s lovely, ambient Happy Here and Now found its way into theatres immediately after its 2002 Toronto Film Festival premiere, the film might have seemed all wrong—too self-consciously odd, too much a part of the science fiction genre that it’s only flirting with to really fulfill its aspirations to minor prophecy. Three years later, with the American Atlantis in which it is set fast receding into the realm of the mythological, this unintentional time capsule represents a devastating elegy for a lost way of circa 2001 life, even as its more obviously generic element, crafted in that other time, is rendered by the intervening space more fully relevant to our here and now. If Almereyda nailed (mostly, Happy Here and Now seems to exists in some time without cellular), and with a whiff of freshness, our increasingly ambivalent infatuation with and hyper-reliance on technology as a means to assuage loneliness and ennui in advance, but produced an elegy for New Orleans (and for the departed Ernie K-doe, a local celebrity playing himself who’s featured) only in retrospect, well, even the greatest soothsayers didn’t get it right all the time.
Featuring the barest of narrative, but an abundance of moody set pieces, portentous camera movements, and ambiguous dialogue Happy Here and Now stumbles through its lost sister/quest narrative with a discursive organization that’s still, thankfully, barely legible after two viewings. Thankfully, because December seems with each passing year the month of ossified topic sentence movies pre-packaged with Import but lacking surprises. It’s refreshing after the monolithism of something like Syriana to curl up with a film unsure of its own ideas and eventual destination and that seems to care little for cementing either. Lest it sounds disorganized, or worse, trendily hermetic—as some have critics have labeled Almereyda’s other films—HH&N somehow achieves a feat that few manage: It creates an aesthetic system airtight enough such that disparate narrative stopovers like an exploding building, a grainy, B&W internet video chat room, and the set of an amateur (porn, sorta) film about Nikolai Tesla can exist safely within the same 89 minutes. But mostly, Happy Here and Now is a quiet film, and if it feels like a Almereyda’s nonsensically reciting notes and half-thoughts from a sketchbook sotto voce and you’re only halfway comprehending, don’t feel left out.
“How is that someone can go missing with all the means at hand to stay in touch?” is the unspoken question underlying Isabel’s (Liane Balaban) increasingly frantic search for her lost sister Muriel (Shalom Harlow). The equally unspoken answer’s another question: “Given all the means we have to keep in touch with each other, why don’t we go missing more often?” In retrospect, we could also ask the former in relation to disappeared New Orleans. Except that unlike in Almereyda’s film, there probably won’t be a return ticket, no postcard in the mail. Perhaps strangest of all the strangeness in Happy Here and Now is that somehow, in the midst of all of these discontinuities and missed connections, Almereyda, miraculously, answers both of his questions, and shapes a cast of characters worthy of the emotional resolution granted them.
This opens tomorrow (12/14) at the IFC Center in NYC.