Cinematic happy endings are enjoyable so long as they’re earned. Don Roos’s spoiler-ishly titled Happy Endings, however, seems to believe that jubilant conclusions are the privilege of all characters—regardless of how shallow, thoughtless, or cruel they (and their behavior) may be—and therefore can be justifiably tacked onto the last reel of any movie. The director’s latest interweaves three semi-related California tales concerning men and women coping with the complexities of sex (and ensuing pregnancies), and by the film’s conclusion, every one of its vignettes is wrapped up in a sweet, semi-neat fashion. Roos’s irony-free positivity about the human condition is touching and, at times, contagious, and by and large, his cast—especially Maggie Gyllenhaal as a free-spirit who becomes involved with a gay drummer (Jason Ritter) and his wealthy father (Tom Arnold), and Steve Coogan as a man suspicious of the paternity of his lesbian friends’ son—is endearing. Yet because of his genuine affection for his protagonists, Roos apparently thinks he can also bestow upon them whatever optimistic outcome he chooses. As both writer and director, this is, of course, his literal right, and yet such manipulation drains his tangled narrative of dramatic consequence. Handing down his inorganic upbeat finales rather than crafting them as natural outgrowths of his story, Roos turns his sporadically amusing, often infuriating film—about how the path to happiness is paved with honesty toward one’s self and others—into a spectacle of self-satisfied directorial omnipotence.
Even more irritating than Happy Endings’ third act triumphs is its lack of faith in moviegoers’ intelligence, a fact illustrated through the filmmaker’s use of explanatory text (shown next to the action via split-screen) that imparts not only crucial tidbits about the ongoing proceedings but also critical analysis of its primary players. Wrongfully assuming the audience needs, or wants, instructions on how to feel about these characters, Roos introduces Mamie (Lisa Kudrow), an unhappy abortion clinic counselor being blackmailed by a documentarian (an intolerable Jesse Bradford) about the son she once put up for adoption with this bit of advice: “Don’t worry if you don’t like her.” Shortly thereafter, a scene between Mamie and her lover—Mexican masseuse Javier (Bobby Cannavale) who sometimes grants clients the titular “release”—condescendingly informs us that “Mamie is like Javier. They get paid to make people feel better.” And when such tell-don’t-show comments aren’t patronizing, they’re merely self-conscious and smug, such as when the film, referring to Mamie’s stepbrother (a droll Coogan), remarks, “Charley is gay now. Who isn’t?” Oh, the cheekiness…or, rather, oh, the narcissism! By deliberately interjecting himself into the movie via these grating text messages, Roos (who delivered crackling dialogue and humorous insolence in 1998’s The Opposite of Sex) repeatedly proves unwilling to let his stories speak for themselves. And thus it comes as little surprise that his serio-comic examination of honesty and acceptance—with its determination to hold viewers’ hands from beginning to end—boasts bookend karaoke performances of “Honesty” and “I Love You Just The Way You Are.”