A dysfunctional family is a good place to start for a movie. But how far can dysfunctional go before it turns into simply crude? Mitchell Lichtenstein’s new film, Happy Tears advertises itself as a film about familial love and homecoming. The movie is instead more about coping and accepting one’s family secrets and diseases.
Happy Tears trails two sisters, Jayne and Laura (Parker Posey and Demi Moore respectively) who return to their Pittsburgh home to take care of their father, Joe (Rip Torn), whose health and mental stability are quickly deteriorating.
Jayne is uptight, naïve, and married to a wealthy artist’s son (who has a plethora of his own problems). Laura is a hippie-type with a few children and a European husband whose sexuality is questionable. And Joe is an old man, who has lived a long, morally questionable life, and wants to finish out his days his own way.
Unfortunately, this includes living with a new “lady friend,” Shelly (Ellen Barkin), a dirty crack head. The homecoming is a complete mash up of emotions, secrets, and personal insecurities that all surface in only ninety-five minutes.
The film forces the audience to witness a lot of unpleasant things. Scenarios that are much more disagreeable than the typical plot of daughters dealing with their elderly father. This is not a sweet, nostalgic family drama. Happy Tears is slightly deranged, more than a little unrefined. Viewers will cringe.
Ever have the desire to see someone who has defecated him or herself be washed? No? Don’t see Happy Tears. This is just one of the many troublesome scenes that leaves audiences audibly disagreeing with what they’re seeing. Just wait to see a grimy drug addict eat chicken. But hiding somewhere within this repulsiveness is a lesson about everyone’s own craziness and humanity.
Each character is crazy in his or her own way. One may believe there is gold in his backyard. Another escapes reality by reverting into her own dream world. By the end of the film, the manifestation of “crazy” is unrecognizable. Maybe each of the characters should be committed or maybe they’re all perfectly sane. Who is to say?
Lichtenstein also raises questions about human addictions, disease, and psyche. Many of said questions are asked, but never answered. There are a lot of loose ends to Happy Tears. This is due to the number of plots that arise from just the four central characters, and the number of ways the film could have gone. When watching the movie, one sits and hopes, even begs, it won’t go there, but it does.
Much of Happy Tears seems unnecessary. Not that it contains superfluous material or fluff, but unneeded plot twists. The movie could have made its point (though such a point has yet to be deciphered) without many of these turns. When the audience watches Parker Posey float on a jellyfish while tripping on an unknown drug that she decides to take during her mental breakdown, they may forget where they started and where they’re going. There are many of these dream-like sequences that utilize animation. Some are dreams, some are flashbacks, and some nightmares. But they are all jarring to the film’s narrative and abruptly remove the viewer. Just one more addition to the movie that poses the question: why?
Maybe the audience isn’t supposed to answer this. Perhaps that’s the point. Just as many of scenes can’t be (and don’t want to be) understood, it is the same with human life. Not everything anyone does can be fully recognized. Everybody has his or her secrets. And yet Happy Tears offers an interesting conclusion to what happens when secrets are revealed. An ending that suggests family does conquer all, even a dysfunctional family. An ending that is also far too civil for the crudeness of the movie.
Though Happy Tears has its obvious flaws, the acting is superb. Posey is frigid and lost in her daydreams, unable to see what’s in front of her. She plays the younger, immature daughter perfectly. She is unable to see any of her father’s flaws and idealizes her twisted childhood. She does this convincingly. There is no doubt that when Posey stands there, arm cocked at the elbow, walking around aimlessly looking at the ceiling, she’s lost in her fantasy world. Barkin’s character may be revolting and hard to watch (in tight jeans with her thong sticking out, greasy hair, and inappropriate heels), but she immerses herself. So much so that one wonders if those stains on her teeth are real, and if all her rocking back in forth is actually drug-induced. As for the crazy old man, Torn gets his character down too. Stumbling around and making inappropriate comments, Torn seems to be enjoying this old age, while simultaneously making the audience hope their fathers never turn into this. The only character that falls a bit short is Laura, played by Moore. Less convincing as a hippie, Moore and her character don’t astonish the audience like the other characters. But refraining from delving into one more character’s bizarre mind may actually be a blessing.
Happy Tears is not for the squeamish or the sensible. Its tagline reads, “There's an art to going home without going crazy.” This should more accurately read, “Going home is about realizing you’re all crazy.”
(Originally printed in the Johns Hopkins News-Letter)