Review: 'Happy Happy' Stirs Melancholic Cocktail, Not Shaken Enough

by Gabe Toro
September 16, 2011 6:54 AM
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Agnes Kittleson, an actress of slightly more angular, Nordic features similar to Michelle Monaghan, has a smile that fills the screen. It’s truly one of the prettiest, purest smiles this writer has seen in a film in decades. It’s unfortunate that, of the world’s auteurs, most of them work on the darker side of the spectrum -- Lars Von Trier, for one, would probably eliminate that smile for all of eternity. But this girl could be a star, or at least the everlasting face of an international gum company, with a face like hers. It’s also a consistent reminder that “Happy Happy,” despite its dark edges, is a pleasant, if low-aspiring comedic drama, about how the frayed ropes that connect us can still keep us from madness.

Agnes and Joachim Rafaelsen play Kaja and Eirik, a married couple who live on the outskirts of town with various intimacy issues of varying degrees. She wants sex but he’s emotionally withdrawn. Her affections are more maternal, while Eirik clearly shares a passive-aggressive bond with his somewhat anti-social son. Enter Sigve and Elisabeth, a troubled husband and wife who, for some reason, are interested in renting the house next door, the only house in what seems to be miles of land. Their very presence is condescending, the two of them priding themselves in their ability to be forward thinking, and when they visit Kaja and Eirik, it almost seems like they’re doing them a favor.


The two couples intertwine, learning each others’ hopes and fears. The news that Sigve and Elizabeth have moved for a strategic desire to get past an adulterous situation feels so incendiary to this closed-corner unit that it almost melts the snow. Moreover, there’s the possibility that, if not gay, Eirik is at least looking. The tension escalates as Sigve and Kaja embark on a heated affair, while the more “progressive” couple, already on uneasy terms, are pressured into joining the local church choir.

If it weren’t for the confident comic performances, much of “Happy Happy” would feel contrived. Director Anne Sewitsky doesn’t trust her central story to do the heavy lifting, which necessitates a subplot involving their children. While Kaja and Eirik’s child has a natural cruelty that seems institutionalized, Sigve and Elizabeth have a more precocious black son, clearly a result of their cultural altruism/condescension rather than their love and care, considering how unaware they are. Turns out the boys have developed a co-dependent and very literal master-slave relationship based on their fractured understanding of mass media. So desperate to endear himself, he endures this abusive relationship; while his parents dither, the well has been poisoned.

As if that weren’t gimmicky enough, Sewitsky leavens the mood with a Nordic barbershop quartet, a singing troupe clad entirely in suits belting out American blues standards. It’s almost a signpost of sorts: don’t take this THAT seriously, guys! Shooting them occupying the same space as the other characters is jarring, causing you to, at least briefly, question the otherwise grounded reality of the film. Shooting them with a fish-eye lens further clarifies their status as walking canned laughter. Filmmakers like the Coens would have found a way to keep their otherworldliness while integrating them into the physical universe a bit more clearly. Here, they’re inelegantly embedded.

This would all be arthouse posturing if it weren't for Kittleson's delightful performance. Funny and human in every way, her Kaja remains both oblivious and altogether committed to happiness, to the point where you can see her actively forcing herself to commit to her affair, entrapping Sigve in her emotions as well. The moment where they lie naked in each others' arms and they confess their love plays out the entirety of their feelings. The more she rambles, the more she decides this is the decision to make, and as she talks, she puts pressure on him to verbally commit as well, which he does after a pregnant pause where, clearly, no better alternative comes to mind. "Happy Happy" mostly deals with these moments -- the times in between silences when we decide to commit to friends and loved ones, and the ugly aftermath that follows. Mostly. At least when there's no singing. [B-]

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