In the films of Don Roos (The Opposite Of Sex, Bounce), everyone who thinks they've managed to get their lives under control inevitably has another think coming. Whether it's the arrival of an amoral femme fatale or a plane crash that leaves those on the ground pondering the strangeness of fate, something always shakes things up. There's a whole lot of shaking in Happy Endings, a sweeping ensemble piece featuring a cross-section of Los Angelinos living on emotional fault-lines they may not even know exist. As before, Roos approaches the material by borrowing seemingly incongruous bits from sitcoms and melodramas, an interesting experiment that until now has yielded mixed results. Roos often borrowed the wrong bits, and his films always threatened to get swallowed in soap-opera froth or collapse under the weight of knowing snarkiness.
Traces of those problems remain in Happy Endings—particularly whenever the screen splits to allow for a column of directorial annotations—but they usually have some saving shading beneath them. In Happy Endings, Roos' characters struggle for happiness, or at least the absence of unhappiness, but their struggles, and the places those struggles take them, remain as ambiguous as the title is direct.
As in The Opposite Of Sex, Lisa Kudrow finds room to stretch, playing an emotionally constricted abortion counselor forced to confront the past when aspiring filmmaker Jesse Bradford promises to reunite her with the son she gave up for adoption. However, Bradford does have one condition: Kudrow must let him film the reunion. Instead, she steers him toward an alternate project involving her immigrant boyfriend Bobby Cannavale, a high-class masseuse. Meanwhile, Kudrow's stepbrother Steve Coogan has paternity problems of his own when he begins to notice how much his boyfriend (David Sutcliffe) resembles the son of their best friend (Laura Dern), even though she claims she didn't use the sperm sample Sutcliffe provided. Elsewhere, it's a father causing trouble. Struggling drummer Jason Ritter doesn't want his dad (Tom Arnold) to know he's gay, but when his band's new singer (Maggie Gyllenhaal) offers herself as a beard, it only creates more confusion.
Early on, one of Roos' interruptions announces the film as "a comedy, sort of." Really, it's sort-of not. There aren't a lot of laughs in Happy Endings, and those that sneak in are pretty wry. There's no comedic snap either, and while that seems not to be the point, humor might have helped with the film's often-sluggish pacing. Mostly, Roos wants to hang out and watch as the messiness of life leaves his characters sadder but wiser, and the cast he's assembled helps make up for the slow patches. They almost all behave badly, hurt others, and end up hurting themselves. They learn through painful experience, though they don't necessarily leave the film as better people, and the film doesn't really demand it of them. For instance, like Christina Ricci in Opposite, Gyllenhaal never grows a heart of gold, and she's rarely honest with anyone. But the soulfulness of her duplicity ties into a point Roos makes again and again: Even hearts not made of gold can break.