Sunday, February 26, 2012

"Happy Happy"


Happy Happy takes place in a small, snow-covered country town in northern Norway in the middle of winter, but the place sure feels a lot like Woody Allen's New York of the 1970s and 1980s.  Director Anne Sewitsky tries hard to match the style and spirit of those movies, and almost succeeds.

While Allen's pessimism masks an incurably romantic optimism ("Most of us need the eggs"), Happy Happy can't hide its rather bleak view of marriage, love and romance.  In the end, what we'll remember most about these characters is their acute sadness.

In Norwegian, the title translates to "insanely happy," which may be a more accurate way to describe what these people are; you'd have to be crazy to put up with this kind of emotional misery.  Married couple Kaja and Eirik live in the middle of nowhere with their slightly off son.  Because it's just the three of them in a little house, Kaja has decided they are happy, even though Eirik would rather be off "hunting" (after a week or so away, he buys a bucket of fresh meat to bring back).  When the family sits around the breakfast table, father and son torment the doggedly sunny Kaja with grim stares.

Enter Sigve and Elisabeth, refugees from the city who have decided the solace of this snowy countryside will help them repair the emotional wounds of a recent infidelity.  With their adopted African son in tow, they move in to the only other house in sight, just steps away from Kaja and Eirik.

The loopy, simple-minded Kaja is determined to be friends with the more sophisticated couple.  In short order, though, she starts an affair with Sigve, made all the easier by the fact that her own husband refuses to have sex with her.  

For a movie with rather little plot and few characters, Happy Happy oddly gets sidetracked by unsatisfying story strands, trying too hard, instead, to be quirky and charming, but the result isn't the romantic, Norwegian Fargo it hopes to be; too much of it feels forced and often uncomfortable, and the story focuses on the wrong things.  Instead of a potentially interesting complication with Eirik and Sigve, for instance, there's a bizarre, uncomfortable subplot involving the two couples' young boys playing slave and master. 

As long as it sticks to the story of the affair between Sigve and Kaja -- and the effect it has on their respective spouses -- Happy Happy is often quite appealing.  The actors are generous and sincere.  Henrik Rafaelson's Sigve is a big, lumbering man who looks something like Liam Neeson and has a soft, sensitive side that his wife no longer sees.  Agnes Kittelsen is nervous and childlike as Kaja, a pretty, petite woman who has husband has told her one too many times that she's flabby and unattractive.  She's clearly neither, she's just with the wrong man, and thinks she may finally have found the right one.

But the film turns bleak and unsatisfying.  As it nears its conclusion, one character has an abrupt change of heart that doesn't ring true. I think its makers probably believe Happy Happy ends on a hopeful note, though to me it felt sad and lonely.  Kaia, Eirik, Sigve and Elisabeth wind up understanding each other even less than they ever did.

Happy Happy starts with some sad-but-smiling characters, shows them brimming over with happiness and love for a few moments, then takes it all away again -- even the smiles.  Those winters in Norway sure are brutal.

Viewed Feb. 25, 2012-- Video on Demand

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