Monday, June 20, 2011

On DVD: "Happythankyoumoreplease"

When Josh Radnor’s Happythankyoumoreplease starting making the festival rounds last year, the comparisons to Garden State were inescapable—sitcom leading man goes the indie-flick route, writing and directing said flick to boot (Radnor’s inescapable physical resemblance to Zach Braff did little to squelch the comparisons). The results will presumably irritate most of those who found Garden State hateable, for many of the same reasons. However, I am not part of that camp; my cool card may get swiped, but I stand by my initial impression of Braff’s film as a smoothly-made, enjoyably twee picture with a healthy does of legitimate pathos. Happythankyoumoreplease, a kind of a hipster riff on Chaplin’s The Kid, isn’t quite as consistently successful. But it has its moments.

Radnor heads the ensemble as Sam Wexler, a would-be novelist living in New York City. He gets two of the film’s four story threads; one day on the subway, he sees a kid, Rasheen (Michael Algieri) get separated from his family, but his attempts to take Rasheen to the police station fail, and when he finds out that the kid was in an unhappy foster home, he ends up letting him stay in his apartment for a while. Simultaneously, he takes a fancy to Mississippi (Kate Mara plays her, and yes, that’s really the character’s name), the striking waitress at a neighborhood bar who dreams of being a cabaret singer. Radnor’s script also intersperses the story of Sam’s friend Annie (Malin Akerman), who has terrible taste in men, and also alopecia; and his family friend Mary-Catherine (Zoe Kazan), a diehard New Yorker whose boyfriend Charlie (Pablo Schreiber) has just received a lucrative job offer in Los Angeles, doubly complicated by the fact that she seems to be throwing up in the morning a lot.

That paragraph seems to require a disclaimer, and here it is: Happythankyoumoreplease is a far better film than it sounds. Sure, it is occasionally too precious; Annie’s “alopecia awareness party” is a painfully dreadful scene, and a few of these beats have been done to death (we need no more post-coital scenes where the girl happily snuggles the guy, who wears a stone-faced, wide-eyed expression). As a filmmaker, Radnor relies too heavily on the “let’s-tie-everybody-together” music montage, and there’s a bit too much going on in his screenplay; the Annie subplot is just intrinsically less interesting, and while Akerman is not a bad actor, you don’t really believe her all that often here.

The picture is ultimately saved, though, by the sharpness of the dialogue and the skill of the players. Radnor’s a fine director; he has a good eye for clean, symmetrical compositions, gets good work from his actors, and the film feels at home in its New York locations and in its pseudo-hipster circles (there are some nice little touches to that end, like the title of Sam’s failed novel: The Other Great Thing About Vinyl). As an actor, he is charismatic and engaging, with a good presence and (not surprisingly, from his years on How I Met Your Mother) fine comic timing. Sure, he’s not terrible versatile (Sam is basically Ted Mosby with a beard), but he’s likable, and handles the serious moments admirably, particularly a wonderful scene in the back of a police car.

More importantly, his chemistry is off the charts with the lovely Mara, most recently familiar from 127 Hours; she’s got a terrific, sideways delivery and a wonderful way of suppressing her big, wide smile. She has also a killer singing voice, so accomplished and professional that I was certain she was being dubbed. The most memorable performance in the piece, though, is that of the wonderful Zoe Kazan—she walks into the movie and you immediately want it to just be about her. Her delivery is spot-on (when Charlie says she should leave New York because she’s usually miserable, she immediately insists, “Yes, but that is not New York’s fault!”), and there’s something absolutely perfect about the way she keeps saying “What?!” in a key scene, each time the same yet just the slightest bit different. And if Radnor gives himself the quietly dramatic stuff, he gives Kazan the arias, and she just nails ‘em. Also of note are Algieri, who is cute without being “cute,” and Tony Hale (aka Buster from Arrested Development), whose turn as a potential (and atypical) romantic interest for Annie is played mostly straight, but with a quiet intensity that works quite well.

Cynics and carpers will find plenty of objections to lodge at Happythankyoumoreplease, and not all of them are without merit. It is an uneven film with a few very false notes and a slight air of self-satisfaction. But it is also a very kind movie, slight but sweet, and the longer it goes, the harder it becomes to dislike it.

"Happythankyoumoreplease" hits DVD and Blu-ray tomorrow. For full A/V and bonus feature details, read this review on DVD Talk.

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