Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art


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PostPosted: Thu Mar 10, 2011 2:46 pm 
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JOACHIM RAFAELSEN, AGNES KITTELSEN, MAIBRITT SAERENS, HENRIK RAFAELSEN IN HAPPY, HAPPY

Danish couples comedy with cringe-worthy giggles

Anne Sewitsky’s directorial debut Happy, Happy (Sykt lykkelig, which means "sickeningly happy") is a dark little satire of sex and manners with musical interludes and an ugly little subplot that seems tasteless and pointless. Two couples, each with a little boy, are thrown together in an isolated piece of the Norwegian countryside as into a Petri dish. Into the world of Kaja (Agnes Kittelsen) and Erik (Joachim Rafaelsen) and their young son Theodor (Oskar Hernæs Brandsø) come tall Liam Neeson-lookalike Sigve (Henrik Rafaelsen), his blond Danish wife Elisabeth (Maibritt Saerens), and their adopted African son Noa (Ram Shihab Ebedy). The writer, Ragnhild Tronvoll, wastes no time. The one couple is renting the house to the other and the houses are very close together. A joint dinner is staged the first evening. Kaja's neediness is embarrassing. She seems to have no social outlets and Erik seems to have no social skills.

The second night the landlords dine chez the new tenants. This time a couples game causes Kaja to blurt out more. She and Erik haven't had sex for a year! Drunk, she rushes from the table crying, and in comforting her Sygve reveals the embarrassing reason for their coming to the country: Elisabeth has just had an affair. Sygve and Kaja embrace, and the loosened-up kaja gives Sygve a quick blow-job.

This only leads to more in the days to follow. Sex with Sygve is much better for Kaja than it ever was with Erik. Erik, it turns out, has told Kaja she isn't attractive anymore. He'd rather go moose hunting. Actually (this emerges more gradually) he may never have liked women that much, and his hunting trips are a probable excuse to indulge his sexuality "on the down low." This comes out when Erik and Sygve go on a run, and afterward in a rush of emotion and misunderstanding Erik tries to kiss Sygve. Kaja turns out to have long feared Erik is gay. He may have married her out of pity because when they dated she was so unhappy and unlovable.

Elisabeth is a cold, unpleasant woman, hardly the "perfect" creature Kaja sees. For a while, Sygve may believe he's in love with Kaja, who definitely thinks she's never been happier in her life than Sygve has made her. A (possibly reformed?) Erik attempts sex with both women, but his technique is comically crude and pleases neither.

Meanwhile Theodor and Noa enter into a sick master-slave relationship involving beatings and confinement brought about by Theodor's reading about African slavery. Erik finds out about his wife's infidelity and, having been a good wrestler in his youth, tries to beat up Sygve out in the snow -- where one day Theodor comes upon Kaja and Sygve cavorting in the nude. Maybe the boys' unhealthy role-playing is an expression of their emotional confusion about their parents' misbehavior.

The narrative arc leads up to a somewhat weak climax as Christmas comes and Sygve, Elisabeth and Kaja have joined the local glee club and Elisabeth, who knows about Sygve's affair with Kaja pushes Kaja to sing the soprano solo in "Amazing Grace," which looks like it's going to lead to huge embarrassment. In the end it turns out at least one of these marriages is over, but there's no follow-through.

A young male quartet in suits and ties sings American songs in interludes staged in a studio that both break up segments of the film and add to the comic distancing and neatly dovetail with the musical theme of the glee club and classics that underline sexual moments. Dennis Harvey of Variety calls the quartet "a Greek-chorus device that restores good humor at the darkest moments." And there are dark moments. Harvey acknowledges that the writing sometimes "risks pushing the envelope farther than the feature's lightly farcical emphasis can handle."

Happy, Happy is an accomplished comedy -- if you can call it a comedy. It is hard sometimes to see Kaja's unresolved personality -- she turns out to be an orphan raised in foster homes -- and Erik's sexual confusion as funny, and it is quite impossible to see the Norwegian boy's continual abuse of the African boy as in any way risible. A playing with the squirm-worthy slips into the tasteless there. Noa isn't developed as a character either. Is the slavery-play just good fun for him? He never interacts with his parents, and barely speaks.

There are gaps and implausible elements in the writing too. How come this young couple owns two houses in close proximity? Kaja is a schoolteacher and Elisabeth is a lawyer, but what do Erik and Sygve do? The direction is sure enough to keep the scenes moving energetically, but Sewitsky can't manage the various tonal shifts in the script. The actors, particularly Rafaelsen and Kittelsen, do good work, with Rafaelsen providing the subtlest moments.

Sykt lykkelig, not to be confused with Henrik Ruben Genz's droll Jutland Danish comedy Frygtelig lykkelig (Terribly Happy), won the World Cinema Jury award at the 2011 Sundance Film Festival, which shows how well the setup works for audiences. There is some talk of a Hollywood remake.

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©Chris Knipp. Blog: http://chrisknipp.blogspot.com/.


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