“Go with God, Janet, and bring back all the booze.”
Have you ever met a couple that was basically perfect? A couple that almost never fights, and when they do, they make up quickly with no bottled-up resentment? A couple that still has an active—or arguably overactive—sex life even after 14 years of marriage? It sounds annoying, doesn’t it?
That’s where Happily (2021) begins. Janet (Kerry Bishé) and Tom (Joel McHale) are that annoyingly perfect couple and they find out that their best friends kind of hate them. After dinner with Karen (Natalie Zea) and Val (Paul Scheer), they discover that they’re disinvited to a couples getaway at a chic, modern mansion because no one else can stand their love…and, more reasonably, their public displays of affection.
Things get more interesting the next day when a mysterious stranger (Stephen Root) appears at their door. He’s carrying a suitcase with two syringes in it, and he vaguely tells Tom and Janet that there’s something wrong with them that the syringes will fix. They’ll be a normal couple after they take it. Obviously, this is a very weird thing to hear.
I’ll get into some spoilers after this. My more vague opinion of the film is that it doesn’t quite reach the levels it could, but it’s still a well-shot, well-cast film that’s part The Big Chill (1983) and part The Twilight Zone. Happily never gets as insightful about relationships or friendships as I hoped it would, but it’s effective at switching tones from tense, to funny, to serious.
So… Spoiler Alert!
Things quickly start to get interesting when Janet panics and kills the stranger. They decide to bury the body and then they get re-invited to the weekend getaway. I was glad that, on the drive to the getaway, the two realize that their friends pranking them was a more likely explanation than the stranger being some supernatural force. It set up an interesting dynamic of Tom and Janet trying to act normal even though they just killed and buried someone, while also investigating their friends. I don’t think this part of the movie paid off as well as it could have. They could have squeezed some funnier and more intriguing scenes out of their suspicions, but it kind of boiled down to Tom and Janet just checking their friends’ vibes.
Besides Karen and Val, the other couples include friendly Patricia (Natalie Morales) and douchebag Donald (Jon Daly), a level-headed couple Carla (Shannon Woodward) and Maude (Kirby Howell-Baptiste), and the quiet Richard (Breckin Meyer) and his new fiancé Gretel (Charlyne Yi). It’s a very funny cast who play off of each other well, and even the more annoying characters are at least fun to watch. Morales’s Patricia is probably the standout of the group, but it helps that she’s the first one at the house and has a lot to do.
When Janet goes on a late night liquor run, she thinks she spots the stranger…and then she’s sure she spots him. He’s still alive. Tom and Janet decide to lay their cards on the table and tell their friends what’s happening, and the movie really picks up the pace at this point. It gets everyone involved on the same page and brings together the various strands of tension from the first half of the movie.
The end of the film takes a slightly more serious turn into a full-on relationship drama, with everyone participating in what amounts to a supernatural couples therapy session. This was another scene that felt a little too underwritten, with some of the characters getting barely any point of view about the revelations happening. I was happy that the ending leaves things without fully explaining them. I didn’t need to know who exactly the stranger was, and I’m glad the movie didn’t try to come up with something that would likely be lame or anti-climactic. The true climax of the film is the couples driving home. Driving home from an awkward “party” is a pretty great way to show some honest facial expressions and interactions.
Tom and Janet are fun characters. A couple that pisses off their friends by being too-perfect is a concept, and it could have come off as annoying, but McHale and Bishé play it sweet and understated. They’re not rubbing their perfection in people’s faces (although constantly sneaking off to have sex in someone’s house is pretty rude), and the view we get of them home together is less “perfect” and more attentive and communicative. Bishé in particular is the real stand-out of the film and she sells everything she’s asked to. She is also great in the AMC show Halt and Catch Fire (2014 – 2017), and I hope she’ll get more feature work in the future.
BanDavid Grabinski, the writer and director of Happily, does a great job for this being his first feature. Once the movie gets to the mansion he makes good use of long slow pans and zooms, bringing a slightly Kubrickian vibe to the way he films the house. Again, I think the script was reaching for some kind of truth about relationships that it never quite grasps, but it’s also a tough subject to write about universally. He does a much better job with the toxic friendships of convenience that come with adulthood.
Happily ends up being a nice surprise, with the concept and the talented cast standing out in particular. Did I fall in love with the movie? No. But as the movie shows us, love can be complicated.