As the name implies, the World Wide Web provides links and strands that connect us to information at our fingertips. It also allows us to reach out to others online through various technologies that improve daily. But there’s also that paradox of being isolated and alone at your computer at the same time. Bloggers might be confessing their lives via online diaries, but they use other names as avatars to disguise themselves. Revealing their selves emotionally but keeping their identities private, one wonders if individuals are discovering themselves or hiding. Maybe both, considering the Oscar Wilde quote: “Put on a mask and he’ll tell the truth.”
Michael Almereyda’s Happy Here and Now is a contemplative mystery about Amelia (Liane Balaban), a young woman who ventures into a strange city in search of her sister Muriel (Shalom Harlow), who has disappeared without a trace. The only way to look for her is through what’s left of her erased hard drive. Using restored webchat videos that show online conversations between Muriel and philosopher-cowboy Eddie Mars (Karl Geary), Amelia and private investigator Bill Everson (Clarence Williams III) attempt to unlock the mystery. What might seem like a cold and remote, entirely theoretical, and abstract intellectual exercise is given fresh life, even poetry, by the cityscape in which the tale is set: New Orleans. Almereyda made the film in 2001, intending the story to take place five minutes from now—but instead it feels like some kind of elegy for a ghost city, adding deeper resonance to the story of Muriel, whom it is suggested disappeared into the Internet itself. What once was present no longer exists, and yet there remains an indescribable resonance.
New Orleans provides the necessary contrast for Happy Here and Now, a city of strange denizens, bizarre locales, and vivid music. Skipping the French Quarter altogether, Happy Here and Now zigzags from timeworn apartments to glittering dive bars, the Mother-In-Law Lounge to Turner’s Tire Repair. It’s a rich kaleidoscope of sights and sounds that sing out in their vitality. The suspects Amelia encounters include people who resist easy categorization, such as a termite control expert (David Arquette) who’s also a would-be video auteur, Tom the fireman who may be the pixilated Internet guru Eddie Mars or just a well-intentioned doppelganger (Karl Geary), and late rhythm and blues legend Ernie K-Doe playing himself. New Orleans life marches on musically, sensually, and weirdly.
So amid all the earnest philosophizing of Eddie Mars on the merits of Blaise Pascal and Nikola Tesla, Almereyda gets to a richer and more life-affirming point—a point that might have been lost were New Orleans not such a prominent character throughout. The world may seem full of strangers, and the Internet a way to connect with them mysteriously, but it’s a world made up of thoughts. We may never get to know each other very well, but Almereyda seems to imply that we are able to touch each other, directly or indirectly. And he has his off-screen narrator Muriel say that even if the universe is larger than we are, and may ultimately crush us, it is through thought that we shall be ennobled. It’s a romantic notion.
Graduate students everywhere are encouraged to bring their dates to this one, since the post-movie coffee and conversation is bound to be sexy, if you think smart is sexy. Choose a place with a great jukebox, too, since Happy Here and Now is as vibrant as rhythm and blues, as brainy as the poetry of science, and as emotionally open as you hope your date will be.