When Mitchell Lichtenstein crashed into the filmmaking world with his uproariously hilarious Teeth, I was stunned. It was a brutal satire and a brilliant horror-comedy, resplendent with severed peens and a bad-ass heroine/villainess. I was atwitter waiting for his sophomore follow-up, convinced that this dude was ready to rip up the screen with some creativity and a black-hearted wit. Instead, he followed it up with the bland, lifeless, dreadful, appalling Happy Tears. If someone told me the son of a famous artist was going to make an arthouse film, Happy Tears is probably what I would have expected. The fact that it sprung forth from the same font that gave us Teeth tells us that either the tap is dry or the drain is fucking clogged. It literally felt like I was watching the byproduct of some sort of IFC random independent film generator. It was a Mad-Lib assembled by a film class full of hipsters snap-plauding to Stan Brakhage and Andy Warhol, and devising their future attempt to keep a steady cam on a frappucino for 12 hours as a thesis against our molting society and the corporate culture. Or you know, like whatever you want it to be, bro. I would have probably dismissed this outright had it been a one-off, but since it was his follow-up to one of my favorite films EVER, I’m hoping this was just a horrible nightmare and Lichtenstein’ll shake it off.
Happy Tears is the story of a cah-raaazy family full of cah-raaaazy people who do cah-raaazy quirky things. Lichtenstein shook up the ol’ Yahtzee cup and got a Demi Moore, a Parker Posey, and a Rip Torn. You literally could have shook out any batch and it would have been pretty much standard fare: Julianne Moore, Zooey Deschanel, and Brian Cox, or Catherine Keener, Lou Taylor Pucci, and Stephen Root, or a small straight. The plot was hot-glue gunned together from fabric remnants from every other film like they were trying to craft a shitty version of The Savages. Basically, two sisters have to care for their ailing father who claims the backyard is full of hidden gold. (But that sentence was far more interesting than the movie.) The rest of the movie is Lichtenstein holding up quirky character traits to each character like a fidgeting welfare mother back-to-school shopping in a Salvation Army.
Posey’s the rich sister married to the son of a famous artist. She’s flighty and prone to naivete. Moore’s the more dedicated sister, working for an environmentalist trust, and married to a potentially gay man who’s a masseuse. Torn’s a fiesty old songsmith who has a penchant for hookers and a case of dementia. It’s like an acting exercise version of Mike Leigh, just throwing characters into the film and then tacking on peculiarities as they stumble through. Agewise, Moore and Posey are only a few years apart, but their chemistry is like mixing oil and crayons. Torn just did a less crotchety version of his father from Freddy Got Fingered. The only person having any fun at all in this film is Ellen Barkin, playing a batshit crackhead hooker who’s bilking Rip Torn for all his money, which is actually flaky Parker Posey’s money, which is actually Parker Posey’s husband’s money, which comes from selling his father’s art. So now you see why we need secret buried treasure.
Lichtenstien keeps scratching in new verbs and nouns to his Mad Lib, creating a chaotic and yet incredibly boring and senseless film. It’s like cataloguing a yard sale. Sure there might be some good stuff there, but you have to dig through so much crap to get to it, why fucking bother? Pot smoking, old man incontinence, a backhoe, crackwhoring, car crashes, and pirate booty. Hell, a gay husband, a suicidally depressed art dealer, illicit sex, pregnancy, and chicken dinners too. The film opens with a series of contemporary paintings of splashed paint, which is an apropos metaphor for this film. Someone might think it’s worth something, but to me, my fucking kid could paint that. And I don’t have a fucking kid. Or paint.
I’ve already wasted more thought on this than went into the film. This is the laziest canvas splash from an artist who should know better. And since it’s his second film, we’re left to wonder: Was Teeth the fluke, or is Happy Tears the hiccup? Regrettably, I’m convinced it’s the former.