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We’ve seen him dozens of times before, saying any damn thing that comes into his head (because living on the planet for 70 or 80 years has given him the right to do so). He’s on his own incorrigible wavelength, dropping putdowns as fresh as his body is old, spicing every cranky comment with a perfectly chosen F-bomb. But, of course, he’s also part of the family.
He’s the grumpy old man, the naughty codger from hell — the hilarious man who is always played by someone like, you know, Alan Arkin. Just about every time we see him, he’s a showbiz creation, a character baptized in shtick.
But in “Boundaries,” a touching yet wised-up father-daughter road movie that’s the best version of this sort of film you could imagine (it’s standard, but very tastefully done), Christopher Plummer plays him with a lived-in, soft-shoe command.
At 88, Plummer looks about as handsome as a man his age can be, with cheekbones that take the light beautifully, his white hair swept back and set off by a beard that’s still, from certain angles, sort of sexy.
He plays Jack Jaconi, the pathologically charming and selfish father of Laura (Vera Farmiga), and by the end of the opening scene, when she’s sounding off to her therapist about him, we’re certain that he must be some version of the monster she describes. Laura won’t even take his calls — that’s how much damage he’s caused.
Then Jack shows up, and he’s such a smiley and debonair old coot that he doesn’t only seem not so bad; he seems real. True, the tropes are all in place. Jack, who has just gotten kicked out of his senior-citizen facility, has $200,000 worth of marijuana he’s trying to unload. (Yes, he’s a drug dealer.)
He also speaks his mind with such a sly-boots sense of humor that it takes us a moment or two to notice how merciless he is. When his teenage grandson, Henry (Lewis McDougall), makes a mild off-color remark about not wanting to go into a shed for fear of being molested, Jack says, “You wouldn’t get molested with a bow in your hair.” Ouch! (On several levels.)
Yet with no insult to Alan Arkin, or to the cast of either version of “Going in Style,” Plummer takes the character of Jack and divests him of any hint of the usual calculated comic overstatement.
Every line feels spontaneous, served up with Plummer’s dryly amused finesse, in tones sonorous enough to rival Morgan Freeman’s. Laura, an animal-rescue freak, has a collection of canine strays who are wispy and broken-down enough to look like actual rescue dogs. “You’re the Pied Piper of mange,” says Jack, and it’s a good line, but what he means is: You’re working way too hard to rescue yourself.
The writer-director, Shana Feste, who made the 2010 Gwyneth Paltrow vehicle “Country Strong,” knows how to stage a road movie as soft-edged psychodrama, without getting bogged down in dumb plot developments.
And she’s got just the right actress in Vera Farmiga, who plays Laura with a protective anger — a sense of propping up her own boundaries — that can’t mask how vulnerable she still is to her dad’s bad parenting. Is Laura right that he wasn’t there for her? Of course! But the movie is still tough enough to say: That’s no excuse for playing life’s victim.
“The Happys” is a film about self-definition that itself doesn’t know what it wants to be — a situation that renders directors Tom Gould and Jon Serpe’s indie effort a tonally confused slog. The story of a Midwestern girl whose life is upended after she discovers her fiance sleeping with another man, the pic’s premise and various scenarios appear designed for humor.
However, when the jokes don’t actually materialize (or land), the proceedings become bogged down in drama that the film’s one-dimensional characters can’t sustain. In theaters and quickly on VOD, it’s a middling work that seems destined to be passed over by discerning audiences.
Since childhood, Tracy (Amanda Bauer) has dreamed of becoming a doting wife who cooks for her “perfect” man. Thus, she isn’t thrilled when, after moving to Los Angeles to support husband-to-be Mark (Jack DePew) and his acting career, she walks in on him having some hot-and-heavy fun with another guy. Rather than ditching him because he’s, you know, gay, she instead gives him another shot so long as he promises to never, ever have more homosexual sex. This is, of course, willful idiocy even for a naive country girl like Tracy. And it’s in keeping with her other unbelievable behavior, which includes bothering Mark by bringing him homemade lunches on the set of his latest movie, as well as striking up a friendship with local shut-in Sebastian (Rhys Ward), who’s the fascination of Luann (Janeane Garofalo), a former child star-turned-property magnate in their Los Feliz community (AKA “The Happys”).
The particulars of Tracy and Sebastian’s meet-cute are as contrived and awkwardly staged as their rapport, which is initially predicated on their shared history of rejection — Tracy via Mark, and Sebastian courtesy of an ex-girlfriend who dumped him after he lost one of his testicles to a deadly spider bite. That sort of detail sounds like a joke, but “The Happys” doesn’t intend it to be funny. The movie subsequently subjects its audience to lots of mirthless chitchat between Tracy and Sebastian, as well as between Mark and his agent, Krista (Melissa McBride), who doesn’t want her client blowing his shot at superstardom over romantic troubles — much less his (disadvantageous) sexual preferences.
In an early conversation between Mark and his castmates, Gould and Serpe’s script tries to address a host of serious topics, including the toxicity of the closet, cinematic gay stereotypes and the lack of Asians in leading movie roles. “The Happys,” though, is so sketchy and insubstantial that these well-intentioned gestures come across as laughably out of place. Just as silly is the fact that it takes Tracy an additional 40 minutes of the film’s 87-minute runtime to figure out that forcing Mark to be a hetero husband is futile — a revelation that, when it finally does arrive, sends her on a quest of self-discovery that leads to a new career as a food-truck chef alongside partner Ricky (Arturo del Puerto).
Tracy’s budding gift at fusion cuisine speaks to the film’s celebration of creating something unique and rewarding from unexpected, dissimilar elements. And by its heartwarming conclusion, “The Happys” also manages to promote the healthiness of breaking free from self-made (figurative and literal) prisons. Sitcom-grade visuals and a forgettable score from Wilco’s Pat Sansone, alas, do little to sell such messages, nor do a collection of ho-hum performances that are inoffensive to the point of being outright featureless. (RTRS)
By Owen Gleiberman
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