What do you get when you combine every social, mental, and psychological disorder into one crazy family? You get a rather depressing and jagged group of people that is not much fun to spend a lot of time with. In the film Another Happy Day, we meet a family of misfits; a group that is so wrought with psychological dysfunction that it is never clear why they even put up with each other. Imagine if every character in a film like Rachel Getting Married had the same demons as Anne Hathaway’s Kym. It makes for an altogether uncomfortable two hours.
Another Happy Day is an actor showcase, especially for the magnificent Ellen Barkin, the magnetic Ellen Burstyn, and the promising newcomer Ezra Miller. The film would have worked as a series of individual character studies, played out in monologues rather than ensemble scenes. As it is, the self-absorbed characters never connect with one another making for scene after scene that lack resolution. Instead of an honest portrayal of mental and psychological disability, we are given a bitter and brutal family gathering that ends without much payoff, despite the best efforts of the well-stocked cast.
Ellen Barkin takes the central role as Lynn, the detached daughter who travels to her parent’s home in Maryland for her oldest son’s wedding. Awaiting Lynn is a veritable slew of landmines in the form of family members who hold grudges against her. Lynn’s ex-husband Paul (Thomas Hayden Church) was violent and abusive, but the family took his side during the split. For the sake of the wedding, the two are forced to spend time together along with Paul’s new wife, Patty (Demi Moore), a helicopter step-parent in the most extreme sense. Patty verbally (and eventually physically) berates and humiliates Lynn while the family looks on unaffected.
Making things worse for Lynn are her two sons, Elliot (Ezra Miller) and Ben (Daniel Yelsky). The latter has a mild form of autism and the former is a self-absorbed drug addict. Elliot is detestable in his narcissistic ways and we are made to hate him every minute he is on screen which in a weird way speaks highly of Miller’s performance. Freud would say he is in an arrested latent period of psychosexual development and unaware of the damage that his ego is causing. Elliot has severe anger issues (the film suggests they were inherited from his father) and he medicates by turning to rather extreme drugs.
The great Ellen Burstyn and George Kennedy step into the roles of Lynn’s parents, Doris and Joe. Doris seems content to ignore any of her family’s psychological issues and suggests things like a glass of water to cure any traumatic outbursts. Her confrontations with Lynn are some of the most devastating as the two have complete misunderstanding of one another. Their chief point of contention is Lynn’s daughter, Alice, who was a witness the night that Paul beat Lynn so badly that she left him for good. Doris seems to think that Alice should have a relationship with her father, while Lynn is the only character who objects.
Part of the problem with Another Happy Day is that the sins of some of the characters are so egregious that the divisiveness of the family seems completely unbelievable. Lynn breaks down in a dramatic monologue where she reveals to the entire family how badly Paul abused her in front of their children. The family responds by embracing Paul for the courage to admit that he did it, without ever asking for an apology. The absurdity of it nearly made me fall off of my chair.
Another problem might have been solved by decreasing the number of characters. Lynn, her sons, and her parents get nice portraits in the film’s two hour running time, but other characters are too crudely drawn. Lynn’s sisters, played by Siobhan Fallon and Diana Scarwid, are so cartoonish that they seem to belong in a Christopher Guest comedy, not a serious drama. Demi Moore is halfway decent as Patty, but her limited time on screen is reduced to screaming ridiculous insults at Lynn. It’s as if her sole direction was: “be a bitch.”
There is something to be said however, about Ellen Barkin who portrays damage, fear, anxiety, and annoyance even when the script doesn’t present her with the most subtextual dialogue. Her relationship with Ellen Burstyn on screen is an honest portrayal of a mother and daughter whose life experiences are parallel, but methods of coping are completely contrary. Their midnight dinner table conversation is painful, but incredibly raw and a fantastic showcase of two great actresses.
Bottom Line: Another Happy Day showcases a family gathering that no one will want to attend.