Surveying the mating foibles of contemporary Brooklynites in their 20s is now well-trod territory in television and film, the low-budget equivalent of blowing up the White House. The Happy Sad, at its worst as irritatingly twee as its title, dramatizes two couples at a point of uncertainty in their histories, engaging in passive-aggressive blame games and heart-to-hearts chock-full of therapy-speak like “I thought we were going to be honest with each other” and two separate instances of a character spying on his or her mate's online cruising activity. While these attractive, self-sabotaging bourgeois lovers differ from the denizens of Girls and Frances Ha in economic comfort (at least two or three of them have not only jobs, but professions), the cumulative effect of their earnest, endless recriminations and missteps recalls what Robert Christgau once wrote about a straight-faced garage-rock combo: “It's no fun because it's not funny.”
Lena Dunham can at least write some good jokes, but screenwriter Ken Urban, adapting his own play, fumbles at injections of urban, and decidedly not urbane, levity, in addition to telegraphing entire subplots. (How will a date with a stand-up comedian prove awkward? Fill in Parts A through D.) Director Rodney Evans often sets the conversations and meltdowns on the street, in a bar, or in the case of a pivotal chance encounter among the quartet, on a subway platform, but to limited cinematic effect. The cross-wired carousel ridden by African-American lovers Marcus and Aaron (Leroy McClain and Charlie Barnett), who embark on “opening” their relationship to scratch a six-year itch, and white, straight-identifying (but pliable) Annie and Stan (Sorel Carradine and Cameron Scoggins), respectively neurotic and diffident about staying together for the long haul, is stagey and numbingly chatty.
That the principles' racial diversity goes unremarked upon feels organic to the milieu, and there are a couple of hopeful fillips, as when the least likely of the foursome lands an effective punch, or Annie is surprised to learn that Stan has been bottoming in his same-sex hookups. (Frustratingly, Maria Dizzia is so vivid and animated as Annie's fellow teacher and budding crush that you wish the movie would center on her.) But par for the course, sexual “experimentation” is rendered, as in most American films from Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice on, largely as a symptom of insecurity rather than a sensual quest, and The Happy Sad retreats into a humdrum restoration of amorous conventions, worse yet to the sound of Stan's bleating as he fronts a pedestrian emo-roots band.