Dysfun-fun-functional! Also Depressing.
Main Cast: Ellen Barkin, Ezra Miller, Kate Bosworth
Director: Sam Levinson
I do love a good dysfunctional family movie. The more dysfunctional, the better. When I read the description of Another Happy Day I was delighted – what could be more dysfunctional than a wedding attended by a mother who abandoned her son, the groom?
Ah, but were it that simple, there wouldn’t be quite enough angst. You see, Lynn (Ellen Barkin) is the mother of 4 children. Dylan (Michael Nardelli), Alice (Kate Bosworth), Elliot (Ezra Miller) and Ben (Daniel Yelsky). Dylan and Alice are products of her first marriage to the abusive Pete (Thomas Hayden Church) – who is now remarried to the aggressive Patty (Demi Moore) – and Elliot and Ben are from her second and current marriage to the laid back Lee (Jeffrey DeMunn). And everyone is going to be at Dylan’s wedding! Yay!! Not only that, but Lynn gets to deal with her parents, Doris (Ellyn Burstyn) and Joe (George Kennedy) and her 2 nightmarish, backstabbing, evil sisters (Siobhan Fallon Hogan and Diana Scarwid). Oh, and 3 of her 4 children appear to have major mental health problems. This, people, is what I call DYSFUNCTION.
So here we are, at the parental home for the wedding and Lynn is girding her loins for a meeting with Pete to discuss daughter Alice’s eminent arrival. Alice is very fragile and wants little to do with Pete, though he can’t imagine why (maybe because when she was small he told her mother to take her and leave Dylan or he would take them both away – not that anyone acknowledges that this could be an issue) so Lynn has arranged for she and Pete to meet with a counselor to try and make the event as easy for her as possible. That doesn’t go well. You see, everyone thinks that Lynn makes thing up to get attention and treats her as though every problem in the family was caused in some way by her. Sure, Pete hit her, Alice cuts herself, her parents still adore Pete despite his treatment of their daughter, Ben has Asperger’s Syndrome and Elliot keeps trying to kill himself but to the family – it’s all about Lynn trying to get attention.
You can certainly see where this is going – and it is not going down a road to a happy, drama free, loved filled family wedding. There is so much angst in this one family that they could have shared the wealth with an entire small town. Barkin’s Lynn is such a beleaguered character that it’s impossible not to want to weep in frustration at her treatment by her family. You want her to disown her horrible parents and siblings yet all of us know that it just isn’t so easy to cast off your family of origin. She has also been so beaten down that she questions herself relentlessly, wondering if she really is the problem even though she knows in her heart that it isn’t all about her. Barkin does a beautiful job with a really difficult character. Down but not out, Lynn keeps trying and we have to respect her for that.
The rest of the cast is just as good. Highlights come from Ezra Miller as smartass Elliot – covering his pain with sarcasm and drug abuse, Demi Moore as the second wife from hell – playing perilously close to the public’s worst perception of her as an actual person and Jeffrey DeMunn as the seemingly clueless but loving, tolerant and endlessly patient husband who really loves Lynn – seeing her not as who she has been cast in life but for who she really is. Kate Bosworth is a little weak as Alice, mostly because not once did she bother to run a brush through her hair. Also because she doesn’t have a whole lot to do. When she does interact with her father she’s marvelous. Pete is a cipher – and Hayden-Church plays him very well. He seems to be genuinely sorry for his past behavior, but not enough to admit it without being directly asked and certainly not enough to keep his wife in check when she’s abusing Lynn. Or to refrain from trying to verbally intimidate her himself. Burstyn’s character is so loathsome that it’s hard to like the actress, but that’s a sign of a great performance, right? Doris isn’t the kind of person we love to hate, or the type that it would be fun to play because she’s so over-the-top evil. Rather, she’s someone we know really exists in the world, someone who through both action and inaction has shown time and again that she has no regard for one of her children. She’s awful because she’s so very real.
Most dysfunctional family movies have characters or plot points that lighten the mood and that’s true to a small degree in Another Happy Day. Elliot is entertaining when he isn’t being self destructive and Lee is marvelously random in his conversation and determination to ignore the abject awfulness of his in-laws. But make no mistake – Another Happy Day is a drama. It’s bleak and depressing but superbly performed by the entire cast and as sad a portrayal of family abandonment as you’ll ever see. Don’t choose it unless you’re really in the mood for something heavy, but it’s most definitely worthy of 4 stars out of 5 for its honesty and raw power as a testament to the harm that families do to their weakest members.