Like everyone else, I miss seeing movies in a theater, not because of the superior sound or immersive visuals, but because of the collective viewing experience. Audience enthusiasm has a way of elevating what you’re watching, making great films into instant classics or, more often, pretty good films into really good ones. If enough people are on a movie’s wavelength, it can smooth out the parts that don’t quite work.
All this is to say, I’m sorry I didn’t get to see Happily with a crowd. It’s easy to imagine BenDavid Grabinski’s relationship comedy playing like gangbusters somewhere like South by Southwest, where comedy and genre fans would eat it up with a spoon. That enthusiasm might help carry through the film’s excellent first two acts and smooth out its lackluster third. As it is, Happily is an extremely funny movie that falls frustratingly short.
Even after 14 years of marriage, Tom (Joel McHale) and Janet (Kerry Bishé) are still sickeningly in love. They flirt at parties and send each other sexts during dinner with friends. At home, they apologize and make up (and make out) within moments of disagreeing. Their behavior puts the couple on the outs with their friends, all of whom have relationship and personal inadequacies they’re desperate to hide. Tom and Janet’s relationship feels too perfect. Something with them is off.
It turns out there may be something to that. A stranger, Goodman (Stephen Root), shows up at Tom and Janet’s one morning, claiming they’re each missing a biological mechanism that makes them experience diminishing relational returns. Goodman gives them two syringes containing a solution he says will fix them. Janet reacts violently to this news, and she and Tom try to cover up her crime and process what’s happened during a couples weekend with their friends. Is the solution real? Was Goodman part of a prank? If he was, who planned it?
The first two acts of Happily are crammed with great jokes, often working with Tom and Janet’s relationship dynamics instead of making them the punchline. McHale and Bishé have great chemistry, and come off as a healthy team with a hysterically active sex drive rather than syrupy and adoring. The couples’ weekend getaway house is also primed for mayhem, complete with a gun room and loads of booze which, when combined with the volatile friendships at play, suggests we should expect fireworks.
Unfortunately, those fireworks don’t appear. Some early conflicts are dropped; other elements, like Janet’s recurring dreams, tie into later plot developments but are never resolved. There may be too many plot threads to tie up all the loose ends, but the movie’s response seems to be to avoid tying up any of them. The result is that Happily builds and builds, then fizzles out right when it should explode.
This is particularly frustrating given that the rest of Happily is so good, and boasts an endlessly entertaining ensemble, including Paul Scheer, Natalie Morales, Jon Daly, Charlene Yi and Kirby Howell-Baptiste, all of whom put in excellent work. The movie has so much going for it that it dares you not to get excited, then inexplicably drops the ball and walks away. Perhaps viewed in a group, the party atmosphere would cover up the disappointment. Viewing Happily on-demand, however, means you’ll have to evaluate it on its own merits, letdowns and all.
“Happily” is available in theaters, on digital, and on demand Friday.