At a futuristic rave of a house party, bathed in the red and purple glows of a charismatic haze, two beautiful people lock eyes from across the room. Their instant connection is palpable, and, before you know it, they’re bangin’ in the bathroom. But this isn’t a first-time, heat of the moment hook-up. No, these two randy, attractive people are Tom and Janet; a happily married couple that has been going strong for 14 years. Their introduction within the film is cheeky and playful, and it sets the tone for the next hour and a half. It’s rare that a directorial debut can so playfully make a contract with the viewer, but Happily quickly assures you that it’s not gonna take itself too seriously. Happily is extremely comfortable sitting in the messiness of its genre-bending introspection of the romantic comedy oeuvre, and from the very beginning, BenDavid Grabinski (writer/director/puppet master extraordinaire) is completely in on the joke.
Most films that focus on a couple in the trenches of the second decade of their relationship tend to dissect the imminent problems that arise from, well, a relationship that has grown stale. In Tom and Janet’s case, their relationship is just too stinkin’ moist to find any fault...unless you happen to be any one of their coupled-up friends who just can’t stand to be around their happiness. Tom (a casual Joel McHale - great, but toned down) and Janet (a delightful, on-the-rise Kerry Bishé) just can’t keep their hands to themselves, they rarely fight, and if they have a disagreement, they make up within hours...and usually, to sexual success. And their friend group has finally, and irrefutably, had it. So when their married friends, Val and Karen (Paul Scheer and Natalie Zea) spill the beans on their friend group's dissatisfaction with Tom and Janet’s marital satisfaction and disinvite them from the upcoming couples’ trip, Tom and Janet really begin to wonder; can their marital bliss exist in a world bent on curbing partners’ desire for each other? Is there something inherently wrong with their happiness?
The question weighs heavily on their minds as they begin to wonder what their lives are going to look like moving forward, after having been dumped by their entire friend circle. And then things start to get really weird. A mysterious man (Stephen Root just really Rooting it up) shows up on their doorstep the following morning, claiming that he has a cure for their non-problem problem. He presents them with two syringes, full of a solution that will allow them to lose their sexual appetites for each other, causing them to argue more frequently and with more voracity, and finally let them blend-in in the world. No longer will others have to question the dysfunction in their own marriages because of Tom and Janet’s happiness. Their defects will be cured. Plus, as an added bonus, they will receive an unspecified amount of money, courtesy of this rogue syndicate of marriage rectifiers. Toms and Janets exist out in the world, but it’s rare that they end up together, and now this unknown agency is just trying to right the imbalance in the world. Most couples aren’t happy, so why should they be?
And this is where I leave you, dear reader, at the end of the first act, because moving forward, the genre-bending truly begins and if you weren’t already aware that the world of Happily is a foreign one, now you most certainly are. I most often gravitate towards films where the rules of the world are slightly off, and knowing the rules of Happily were going to be strange after watching the trailer, I was already pretty excited to dig into this movie. But without belaboring the rest of the shenanigans, I’ll share one more nugget of information in that Tom and Janet, fairly immediately following Stephen Root’s visit, get re-invited to the couples’ trip, and the remainder of the film takes place within the sci-fi mansion that the five couples have rented out for their getaway.
The five couples consist of Tom and Janet, Val and Karen, Patricia (Natalie Morales - truly, the ace-in-the-hole of the film - so funny) and Donald (Jon Daly, dilly-Dalying around), Maude (Kirby Howell-Baptiste, whom I’m happy to see popping up everywhere) and Carla (Shannon Woodward, playing an angry version of herself), and lastly, Richard (a scowly, bearded Breckin Meyer) and Gretel (Charlene Yi!!!). The cast really is top-notch, and while they, sadly, don’t have much to do, they all play their parts and completely fulfill the brief. As much as I enjoy the film, I won’t shy away from admitting that the characters (even Tom and Janet) aren’t exactly three dimensional, but in the case of a film such as Happily, where the ride is more important than the death drops and the loop-de-loops, it didn’t bother me that the characters were mere vehicles for the romantic thesis the film sets up. In fact, I think if they would have been more fleshed out, the world would have started to crumble around them. In watching Happily, it’s more about looking through the glass instead of wondering if the people are half full or half empty.
Thematically, and through its stellar cast, Happily works on a lot of levels, but it would be nothing without BenDavid Grabinski’s exciting writing and directing, which I found very impressive for his first foray into the world of feature films. The movie looks great, even though it’s fairly simple, and it’s so, so, so, funny. While it’s difficult to understand why this friend group has remained friends after all these years (they clearly are all very unhappy), the actors’ chemistry and the delivery of Grabinski’s dialogue is whip-smart and extremely satisfying. Plus, the way Grabinski chooses to deliver tension through dialogue is unexpected and hilarious. Grabinski has worked on a handful of things over the past few years (including a reboot of Nickelodeon’s Are You Afraid of the Dark?), and after watching Happily, I’m very excited to see what he gets up to next. Clearly, if his debut held enough clout to land him the cast he got, he’s going to be someone to watch in the next few years.
There have been a number of films in the past few years that take a deep dive into the idea of second maturity, a time where you’ve begun to settle in your relationship and are beginning to question the next phase of your life. I can think of four of them from 2020 alone: Swallow, Vivarium, The Rental, and Black Bear. I can’t be certain if it’s because I’m of a certain age in my early 30’s where this type of content resonates with me, or if it’s because all of them are experimental commentaries on what it means to be stuck in a box (whether that be in your relationship or even the context of genre in film), but I’ve continued to be impressed by these filmmakers who manage to produce innovative content that still feels fresh after a century of exploring these themes in the medium. (Well, except maybe for Vivarium, you can probably skip that one.) But while Swallow, The Rental, and Black Bear all feel a bit heavier in their exploration, Happily was a real gem of a film that gave me the opportunity to sit next to my husband and laugh and laugh and laugh. He’s a Tom, and I’m a Janet.
So, if you have a free evening and you’re endlessly scrolling through Netflix, contemplating the “age-old” question of what to stream, take a chance on Happily. It’s only $6.99 on AmazonPrime, and I’d be hard-pressed to say you’d not enjoy yourself. At the very least, there’s a very cool Airbnb house to look at it, and it just so happens to be full of some very funny characters. It might not land as your favorite film of the year, but if you’re anything like me, you’re gonna still be thinking about it down the line. And in this expanding sea of films, year after year, I’d say that means it’s pretty good. Give it a shot; you won’t be sorrily.
Bernadette graduated from DePauw University in 2011 with a Film Studies degree she’s not currently using. She constantly consumes television, film, and all things pop culture and will never be full. She doesn’t tweet much, but give her a follow @BeaGorman and see if that changes.