Shot over 20 days with the intent to premiere at the 2020 Tribeca Film Festival, writer/director BenDavid Grabinski’s genre-hybrid Happily eventually hit select theaters on March 19th, 2021, along with a simultaneous VOD and digital release. The film is difficult to describe succinctly while maintaining any kind of accuracy in the process. It’s a dark comedy thriller making the most of its top tier cast of comedians to mine some toxic ideas society has about coupling. If you can handle that Grabinski purposefully refuses to offer concrete answers and still have a good time, then Happily is going to deliver on both entertainment and cerebral stimulation. But if your need to know trumps artistic design, you may want to seek your cinematic amusements elsewhere.
Married for 14 years, Janet (Kerry Bishé) and Tom (Joel McHale) can’t keep their hands off of each other. Like, still-in-the-honeymoon-phase type of can’t keep their hands off of each other. While the two are blissful in just about every interaction together, their friends are a bit more acrid when it comes to how people together for a length of time should behave. It all comes to a head for Janet and Tom when a stranger (Stephen Root) arrives on their doorstep, sending everything they believed about themselves and each other into a tizzy. To make matters worse, they’re supposed to attend a couples’ weekend with several of their friends and go in order to keep up appearances. But as they spent time with their friends, they realize that it’s not just them who’s strangely agitated, leading the couple to question everything around them.
In the sole bonus material, a feature-length commentary, Grabinski describes Happily as a “… Rorschach test in a lot of ways where however you feel about, um, love or marriage or adult friendship kind of infuses how you’re going to feel about it…” This is the easiest and best way to prepare anyone before they sit down to watch Happily. In fact, that should be said before anyone watches the film *if only* to manage expectations for what’s about to go down. Why? With a cast that includes comedians and comedy actors like McHale, Root, Paul Scheer (The League), Jon Daly (Another Period), Charlyne Yi (Steven Universe), Breckin Meyer (Clueless), Natalie Morales (Language Lessons), Al Madrigal (The Map of Tiny Pretty Things), as well as Bishé (Halt and Catch Fire), Natalie Zea (Justified), Shannon Woodward (Raising Hope), and Kirby Howell-Baptiste (The Good Place), there’s a reasonable expectation for the film to be uproarious or silly. EoM editor Crystal Davidson took one look at the cast and said, “I think everyone has appeared on Drunk History at least once.” So expectations can be a killer here, even though the opening scene goes far out of its way to confirm that the laughs are going to be dark and the thrills may just make you uncomfortable. Starting with the Saban Films logo, there’s a mix of red video distortion, like a tape struggling to playback an image, along with pristine, high-quality image capture of Janet (not yet introduced) walking down a hallway until she spots Tom (not yet introduced) and makes the kind of “come hither” eye contact you expect from a sexed-up meet cute. How you respond moments later to finding out they’ve been married for 14 years will drive how you see everything that comes next. Unlike other films which want the audience to possess a specific idea of intent or meaning, Happily doesn’t care what your view is, Grabinski’s not here to tell you what to think. He just seems to want you to think about why you feel the way you do. Why do actors who make you laugh always have to make you laugh? What makes for a successful partnership or coupling? Why do stories have to be concrete? If you can manage these questions, you’ll be set to go for an engaging, even if not necessarily fulfilling, time.
Fulfilling, by the way, is subjective as hell. This reviewer found the film fascinating, even if the ending is so open-ended that the lack of specificity frustrates. It does, however, make watching the film on home video a boon, because as soon as the film ends, there’s an option to replay it with feature-length commentary from Grabinski himself and, maybe, just get a few answers. You may not get the answer you *want* but there are plenty of tidbits that make the fact that the film as engaging as it is a little unexpected. On the technical side of things, Grabinski explains that production designer Jennifer Moller (Southbound) came on-board two weeks before the start of shooting, highlighting the impossibility of having a film look as detailed and specific as Happily and succeed in every measure. He notes that cinematographer Adam Bricker (All These Small Moments), who has worked within comedy and drama, came to his meeting with Grabinski with his own ideas of how the film should look, and each were right in line with Grabinski’s thinking. This matters a great deal because, like the production design, the cinematography needs to convey a persistent tension in order for the thriller elements of the script to work, something which other cinematographers have neglected as they favored a more indie comedy style. There is a lot about Happily which shouldn’t work, especially with the mixture of tones at play, yet Grabinski achieves the balance so wonderfully that the comedy never feels out of place nor do the thriller elements evoke a misunderstanding of the genre’s visual language. Rather, they are all blended together in such a way that the audience is a little off-kilter for the entirety, which seems to be what Grabinski ultimately wants.
As the only bonus feature included on the home release (both physical and digital), a commentary track is really only going to interest a specific type of viewer, especially because its only Grabinski on the audio track. With no one else to riff off of or to get distracted by, his commentary is equal parts reflective of the filmmaking process (something he seems absolutely overjoyed to have endeavored) and informative on details of the narrative. For instance, Grabinski credits actor Natasha Lyonne (Ad Astra) for making one of the friend couples homosexual, which is why she received a notable mention in the credits. You can hear Grabinski geek out over his favorite films, such as when Extreme’s “Play with Me” plays during Daly’s character introduction or how a disquieting auditory stinger used twice in a scene between Bishé and Yi is both hilarious and ominous. For those who love moviemaking, you’ll particularly enjoy the little bits of how the scenes changed on the fly either on set or in editing. One fun tidbit is why Plan 9 from Outer Space makes an appearance.
For my two cents, Happily works by deconstructing our expectations of what a comedy/thriller/love story should be, more so because it asks to be mulled over, to be considered, to be thought upon instead of forgotten as soon as the story ends. Life doesn’t end cleanly, there is no stinger teasing what’s to come, and there are no sequels. Instead, what we make of the now, the often complicated messy now, is what matters. That Grabinski would take his audience on a journey of reflection without telling us how to feel may appear uncomfortable, but, in hindsight, so much of what we find uncomfortable is merely us growing into a new version of ourselves. While I don’t think Happily will induce any kind of personal metamorphosis, it can be argued that one does occur within the film. By mediating on that, perhaps we can better understand ourselves, becoming less miserable along the way.
Happily Special Features
Feature-length commentary with writer/director BenDavid Grabinski
Available on DVD and digital beginning May 25th, 2021.
Final Score: 4 out of 5.