HAPPILY (2021)

March 19, 2021

 Greetings again from the darkness. Most frequent movie-goers have complained about the over-supply of sequels, remakes, and superhero movies. The battle cry is typically something like, “We want some creative new movie ideas!” Well, the feature film debut of writer-director BenDavid Grabinski (writer-producer of TV series “Are You Afraid of the Dark?”) serves up a unique and creative premise in which Act 1 really gets us excited for new experience.

There’s a party at a very nice house. A woman makes inviting eye contact with a man across the room. Their spontaneous sex romp forces Arthur (Al Madrigal, “I’m Dying Up Here”) to find an alternative place for relief. Soon the hosts are explaining to Arthur that the bathroom is tied up by Tom (Joel McHale, “Community”) and Janet (Kerry Bishe, “Penny Dreadful: City of Angels”), a couple who has been married for 14 years, yet they can’t keep their hands off each other. Skeptical Arthur states it must be an act, and “they are as miserable as everyone else.”

We quickly discover that Tom and Janet are neither acting nor miserable. Dinner with the hosts of that ‘bathroom’ party, Karen (Natalie Zea, “Justified”) and Val (Paul Scheer, “The League”), brings a disinvite to a planned couples weekend getaway, along with the brusque enlightenment to Tom and Janet, “everybody hates you.” The next day, a stranger shows up at their front door. Goodman (Stephen Root, OFFICE SPACE, 1999) basically explains the couple is defective and missing the genetic DNA that creates the law of diminishing returns. Fortunately, he has the vaccine that will bring them normalcy. A dramatic turn of events leads to panic and a phone call from Karen re-inviting the couple to the weekend getaway.

That initial set-up is brilliant and played to perfection. Unfortunately, the rest of the movie doesn’t live up to that standard. Things begin to falter once the couples begin showing up at the luxurious Airbnb booked by Patricia (Natalie Morales, BATTLE OF THE SEXES, 2017) and her husband, Donald, (Jon Daly, MASTERMINDS, 2016). The other two couples include Carla (Shannon Woodward, ODE TO JOY, 2019) and Maude (Kirby Howell Baptiste, “Barry”), and Gretel (Charlene Yi, THIS IS 40, 2012) and Richard (Breckin Meyer, ROAD TRIP, 2000). Until this point, we kind of liked Tom and Janet, and got a kick out of the annoyance shown by Karen and Val. However, once everyone is under the same roof, we realize just how unlikable these people are and how screwed up each relationship actually is. The smart dark comedy of Act 1 devolves into a party that we wish we weren’t at, with a twist that makes little sense.

It’s fun to see the familiar faces, and McHale and Biche are fun, but the hope we felt for that creative beginning never pays off. There is a “Twilight Zone” vibe to the premise and the Stranger, but even that is a letdown. The message the movie leaves us with is that people aren’t all good. It’s a message we live every day, not one for a comedy.

In theaters, on digital, and On Demand March 19, 2021

WATCH THE TRAILER

 


THE WAY BACK (2020)

March 5, 2020

 Greetings again from the darkness. So much beer and booze. It would be easy to classify this latest from writer-director Gavin O’Connor as a sports movie. After all, he has given us two excellent ones in MIRACLE (2004) and WARRIOR (2011). However, as with those two films, there is much more going on here. This is about grief and addiction, and the difficulties in mending a life in tatters.

Jack Cunningham likes his morning shower. It helps get him prepared for a day of construction work and get over a late night of drinking. What’s unusual about his morning routine is that he drinks a beer while taking his morning shower, and then fills his Yeti with gin as he takes his post at the building site. Jack is played by Ben Affleck, who has returned to the screen with a serious acting gig after his fling as Batman. Of course, anyone who even casually keeps up with Hollywood gossip knows Mr. Affleck and his character here have in common a drinking problem. In fact, the actor filmed this immediately after his latest rehab stint. It’s quite possible that the collision of real life and fiction explain why this is Affleck’s best performance in many years (at least since HOLLYWOODLAND in 2006). He re-teams here with O’Connor, who directed him in THE ACCOUNTANT (2016).

As a former high school basketball star, Jack’s life has turned out much differently than expected. His construction job is beating him down, alcohol abuse is slowly destroying him, and he recently split with his wife Angela (Janina Gavankar) after a tragedy. Has he hit rock bottom? It’s likely he thinks so. As happens so often in life, an opportunity presents itself. The head Priest at his former catholic high school asks him to step in as basketball coach after the current coach has a heart attack. The team is terrible, and has been that way since Jack graduated 25 years ago. After a painful-to-watch evening of decision-making, Jack accepts the job.

As you would expect, it’s a team of misfits who have little concept of teamwork. Affleck excels as a coach who evaluates the talent he has and devises a strategy to not only improve individual player performance, but also inject the philosophies of teamwork and cohesion and commitment. He does this with the help of Algebra teacher slash Assistant Coach Dan (Al Madrigal, “I’m Dying Up Here”), who appreciates what Jack brings to the position, but is also protective of the boys and the school mission.

Jack manages to stay sober while coaching, but we see how fine that line is for an addict. Life suddenly rears up and plops down an emotional situation that is simply too much form him to handle. It’s here when we realize that while it appeared coaching the team gave Jack a glimmer of hope for a better life, it also allowed him to ignore the personal issues and relationships that had driven him to the bottle. The basketball scenes are the most fun to watch, but it’s the realistic life elements that elevate the story. It’s excruciating to watch Jack re-telling glory days stories to his ‘buddies’ at the local neighborhood bar, only to be helped home by the same old man who used to carry his father home from the same bar. The perpetuation of misery is a story that is all too relatable for many.

Jack’s good qualities are evident when he’s prodding ultra-quiet point guard Brandon (Brandon Wilson) into taking on a leadership role and thinking of his future, but that’s contrasted with his inconsiderate treatment of his sister Beth (Michaela Watkins) and Father Mark (Jeremy Radin), the team/school Chaplain. It’s the two sides of Jack that so clearly resonate with those who have experienced addiction. This is a guy who botched his college/basketball opportunity, but managed to build a new life, only to have it snatched away in the cruelest way possible. It’s imperative that he come to grips with all of that in some place other than the bottom of a beer mug.

The outstanding screenplay comes from Brad Ingelsby (OUT OF THE FURNACE, 2013), and with director O’Connor and the cast, the film has a throwback to the 70’s feel … gritty and realistic. This is not the smirking, strutting stud we are accustomed to seeing with Affleck. He seems immersed in the role and brings an understanding to the struggles, the rehab, and the importance of a support system. Redemption played a huge part in the classic HOOSIERS (1986) and most every other rag-tag sports team in movies, and THE WAY BACK shows us there really is no going back … instead, we must deal with life in order to move on.

watch the trailer: