A.I

The dark thriller Happily takes rom-coms into the Twilight Zone

As executive producer of the 2019 Are You Afraid of the Dark? revival, BenDavid Grabinski is no stranger to stories in the vein of The Twilight Zone, which his feature-length directorial debut Happily most assuredly is. It’s a thriller of sorts, in which picture-perfect couple Tom (Joel McHale) and Janet (Kerry Bishé) realize their loving, devoted relationship may be a little too seamless, after a mysterious figure offers them a devilish deal: a flawed, rocky, ostensibly “normal” marriage in exchange for an enormous sum of money.

But wait, there’s more.

The film is also a rom-com that slowly reveals itself as a work of biting absurdism, with a smidge of tech paranoia thrown in for good measure. That may sound like a lot all at once, but the film’s weakest link is that it zips by fast — a brisk 95 minutes! — without digging too deeply past its upper-middle-class façade of domesticity. Then again, the film’s focus is on capturing the cracks in that blissful exterior, the ways they manifest, and the ways they’re often hidden, so the lack of incisive social exploration doesn’t feel like too much of a setback when Happily zips from scene to scene. (It’s another matter when things finally slow down during the third act.)

Tom and Janet can’t keep their hands off each other, whether in the privacy of their bedroom, or while sneaking around at fancy parties hosted by their friends. They’ve been together for 14 years, and they seldom disagree — but whenever they do, they know exactly how to smooth things over and jump back into bed. But what seems normal to them comes off as romance on autopilot to all their friends, a group of middle-aged couples who’ve been together just as long, but have settled into various ruts, for better or worse.

Photo: Saban Films

Their ceaseless honeymoon phase turns their friends’ stomachs, and leads to a wedding dis-invitation from Karen (Natalie Zea) and Val (Paul Scheer), whose relationship shows significantly more cracks than theirs. Rather than devoting some introspection to understanding why their friend-group finds them obnoxious, Tom and Janet simply boil it down to jealousy, since they consider their marriage and sex life beyond reproach.

Then Stephen Root shows up as an eerie, no-nonsense government type with horn-rimmed glasses and a dated black suit. He claims he works for an all-powerful organization, and that he knows the intimate details of Janet and Tom’s steamy romance. After explaining the bizarre reason for their abnormality, he offers them a sizable check if they’ll take injections — from large syringes filled with glowing green liquid — to fix the problem. They refuse, obviously, but there are repercussions.

First, though, Janet and Tom head out for a weekend getaway at a fancy Airbnb with Karen, Val, and three other couples: life of the party Patricia (Natalie Morales), her rough-around-the-edges husband Donald (Jon Daly), business-savvy lesbians Carla (Shannon Woodward) and Maude (Kirby Howell-Baptiste), and short-tempered loner Richard (Breckin Meyer) and his soft-spoken new fiancé Gretel (Charlyne Yi). Only Patricia seems particularly happy to see them. Then again, no one seems particularly happy at all, especially in each other’s company. It’s not just the mysterious stranger Tom and Janet need to worry about, but a group of duplicitous friends who seem to have it out for them.

Grabinski introduces the ensemble indirectly, through casual gossip between the leads, accompanied by brief shots of the supporting characters living it up at various parties and events. However, as the film goes on, the seeming flashbacks of Tom and Janet’s friends (and some of Tom and Janet themselves) begin to fit strangely into the rest of the film and emerge as something else entirely. It’s one of several devices that call the nature of the narrative into question while propelling it forward in unusual ways. There are other eerie elements as well: Janet often dreams of pairs of chairs enveloped in fog and laid out in a circle, and a number of scenes are interrupted by inexplicable digital glitches resembling surveillance footage. But this isn’t a mystery-box movie that can be figured out in advance: the mystery isn’t rooted in plot details, but in personal and romantic doubts, which the characters seldom put into words.

Happily is the kind of film that gleefully spits in the face of puzzle-solving-as-story. Instead of unraveling these seeming clues, it uses them as maps to the characters’ anxieties. Setups which would amount to answers in a whodunnit are cheekily discarded once they’ve served their emotional purpose. The surveillance glitches may or may not have a literal explanation, but they’re centered on characters who constantly perform their romance and domesticity, like they’re always being watched. It’s romance for the Instagram age. The paired-up chairs are an obvious specter of couples’ group therapy; Janet’s dreams seem to hint at what feels inevitable deep down, rather than what’s already come to pass. (The film’s various “flashes” follow suit.)

This dynamic between time and memory feels intrinsically tied to the movie’s leads. The other couples all have their idiosyncrasies, and they readily put their frustrations on display, but Tom and Janet feel like two-dimensional beings who seldom exist outside their wide-eyed infatuation with each other. They seem incapable of introspection — of looking back. Every argument ends with instant forgiveness and a smile, and they don’t even panic all that much when confronted with potential revelations about their natures. They simply sweep the problem under the rug, chalk it up to a prank, and move on to the next thing.

This suppression of conflict is played for laughs at first, but it’s also reflected in the film’s aesthetics. The constant lens flares evoke anticipation of some adrenaline-fueled action scene waiting to burst through the walls — but it isn’t that kind of movie. The answer to “What comes next?” becomes more obscure and understated as the film explores the simmering tensions between members of the group. Scenes are often introduced through extreme close-ups of expensive objects, always in the proximity of liquid — like scotch being poured in a glass, or the spray from a particularly fancy shower-head — but more often than not, the film’s many tight inserts are accompanied by sounds that are a little too jarring. The film’s fancy façade always hides something jagged and discomforting. The sprawling mansion the group rents out is a series of pristine, never-ending rooms, but it also harbors an enormous gun display behind glass, which functions both as a metaphor for the volatility the couples keep locked up, and a literal consequence that looms large over interpersonal conflicts.

Stephen Root in a suit stands in front of a literal white picket fence in Happily

Photo: Saban Films

Grabinski wears his influences on his sleeve, from the 1980s B-movie opening credits, during which Tom and Janet are engrossed in public roleplay — another layer to the masquerade — to his sly callback to the Saturday Night Live spin-off film MacGruber. The latter may not seem like an obvious fit, but it stands apart from most American studio comedies, which are usually dialogue-centric and heavily improvised. MacGruber creates much of its humor through visual framing, and Happily is a film in that vein. It overtly switches tone for comedic effect — McHale is an expert at diffusing tension, but there needs to be tension to diffuse! — and Grabinski constantly emphasizes comedic delivery through framing and movement. He elicits a laugh with something as simple as a well-timed whip-pan from a violent action to a reaction shot.

There’s a lot going on in Happily, and it spins its plates commendably for most of its runtime. Where it finally falters is in extricating what lies beneath all its constructed idealism and modernist architecture. When tensions finally boil over, the film comes ever-so-close to sticking the landing, but its long-gestating confrontations fizzle out suddenly, as soon as the characters finally address them.

Granted, the film’s aim is to peel back the self-imposed civility of well-to-do American couples in middle-age — its satirical approach to charades is darkly hilarious — but for a genre piece that plays so deftly with hidden meaning, its refusal to go any further and explore the true nature of domestic fantasy feels somewhat deflating. It’s a farce that takes a sharp left turn into the theater of the absurd, but it hits the brakes immediately after this swerve, when it could’ve (and perhaps should’ve) charged right on through into challenging territory.

That said, Happily is incredibly fun from start to finish. If nothing else, its nagging flaws feel less like errors, and more like untapped potential. Grabinski is clearly onto something, and it’s only a matter of time before he truly finds it.

Happily will open in theaters and via digital and On Demand platforms on March 19th. Before visiting a theater, Polygon recommends reading our guide to local theaters and safety precautions during the COVID-19 pandemic.

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