“Happily” is what happens when a cute conceit goes nowhere intriguing. Writer-director BenDavid Grabinski’s feature debut tries to generate comedic menace and mystery from the aftermath of a bizarre encounter between a preternaturally lovey-dovey California couple and an enigmatic stranger, but there’s nothing particularly amusing or suspenseful about the weirdness that ensues. Stranding a host of likable actors in atonal purgatory, it seems likely to please few when it debuts in theaters and on VOD on March 19.
Fourteen years into marriage, life is good for Tom (Joel McHale) and Janet (Kerry Bishé) — annoyingly so, according to their friends, who resent the fact that the pair still act like hot-to-trot lovebirds who can’t keep their hands off each other. Tom and Janet’s friskiness is extreme enough to get them disinvited from a weekend getaway by Val (Paul Sheer) and Karen (Natalie Zea). Yet that slight isn’t nearly as traumatizing as a subsequent visit from an unknown man (Stephen Root) in a black suit and glasses who tells them that they have a “malfunction:” they’re missing the “biological defense mechanism” that should cause their romance to cool down. This individual, who says he operates “on a higher level of authority” (and whom the credits dub “Goodman”), plans to remedy that situation via syringe injections of fluorescent yellow serum that will make them normal.
Tom and Janet don’t take kindly to this news, and following a fatally rash decision, they decide that that their friends are behind this entire mess. Those suspicions only mount once they’re re-invited to Janet and Val’s shindig, set at a swanky Airbnb house where they’re joined by outgoing Patricia (Natalie Morales) and jerky Don (Jon Daly), aloof Maude (Kirby Howell-Baptiste) and snobby Carla (Shannon Woodward), and sullen Richard (Breckin Meyer) and reserved Gretel (Charlyne Yi). The plan, as it were, is to hang out while keeping the booze flowing, but Janet and Tom’s paranoia soon becomes too great to keep to themselves, leading to an admission that makes everyone feel even more uncomfortable about Tom and Janet — save, that is, for Karen, who clearly has ulterior motives when it comes to Tom.
Grabinski and cinematographer Adam Bricker shoot “Happily” as if it were a glossy J.J. Abrams thriller, full of sleek surfaces and lens flares that strive to create an air of impending danger. Amplifying that mood are recurring snippets of a Janet dream in which she walks through a misty forest toward a circle of red chairs — a scenario that’s only explicated at film’s conclusion — and a Joseph Trapanese score that’s heavy on ’80s and ’90s tunes (including more than one by Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark). The atmosphere is pitched somewhere between erotic and alarming, with wannabe-witty conversations thrown awkwardly into the mix, which leaves the material operating in an uneven middle-ground where it’s hard to know when, or whether, it should be taken seriously.
McHale’s performance doesn’t help clear things up; even at his most serious, the actor always appears ready to break into a smirk, thereby further muddying the waters. Bishé has more success navigating Grabinski’s narrative, evoking a sense of confusion and concern that seems warranted by the unnerving events at hand. Nonetheless, her turn can’t offset the jaggedness of “Happily,” which barely fleshes out its peripheral characters — the talented Sheer, Zea, Morales and Root are squandered in one-dimensional roles that barely strive to be funny — and fails to provide a thematically coherent explanation for its dramatic setup. Aiming for a darkly humorous portrait of marital bliss — and the difficulties of maintaining it — the film comes off as a half-formed “Twilight Zone” joke minus the punchline.
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