Producers: Nancy Leopardi, Ross Kohn, Jack Black, Spencer Berman and BenDavid Grabinski Director: BenDavid Grabinski Screenplay: BenDavid Grabinski Cast: Joel McHale, Kerry Bishé, Stephen Root, Natalie Zea, Paul Scheer, Al Madrigal, Natalie Morales, Jon Daly, Kirby Howell-Baptiste, Shannon Woodward, Charlyne Yi and Breckin Meyer Distributor: Saban Films
An initially goofy premise turns weird and then positively sinister in BenDavid Grabinski’s debut feature, a stylish but uneasy hybrid of comedy and drama that ends in frustrating ambiguity. You can respect Grabinski for attempting something different, but different doesn’t necessarily mean good.
After fourteen years of marriage, Tom (Joel McHale) and Janet (Kerry Bishé) remain unequivocally happy and extremely affectionate (read: sexually active), so much so that their constancy has come to irritate their circle of friends no end. So Karen and Val (Natalie Zea and Paul Scheer) inform them they’re being cut off and will have to enjoy one another’s company uninterrupted by outsiders.
They’re shocked but undeterred until a strange fellow named Goodman (Stephen Root) shows up at their door to inform them that their unremitting fidelity and obsessive lovemaking represent an anomaly in the order of the universe that has to be remedied with an injection that will cure them of their unnatural trait. At first puzzled and then infuriated, Janet impulsively conks the guy on the head and she and Tom dispose of his body.
Suddenly they’re welcomed back into the social group that had just ostracized them and invited to spend a weekend at a plush modernist estate with Karen and Val as well as three other couples—Patricia and Donald (Natalie Morales and Jon Daly), Maude and Carla (Kirby Howell-Baptiste and Shannon Woodward) and Gretel and Richard (Charlyne Yi and Breckin Meyer). Left out of the group is lonely professor Arthur (Al Madrigal), who’s forlorn over his exclusion.
He probably should be grateful, though, since the weekend turns out to be a disturbing one. Patricia and Donald got a great deal on the rental, it seems, but the place is odd, having, among other things, a gun room with tons of firepower. And though the couples are friendly, there’s some tension among them, and even between some of the partners; Val and Karen show signs of strain, and she has eyes for Tom, while Gretel and Richard eye one another uneasily.
What follows is a further unraveling. It turns out that not only is the house owned by Mr. Goodman, but his briefcase turns up there, and he appears to Janet, apparently in the flesh, when she and Gretel are out on a booze run. Janet also spies something unsettling on one of the security cameras that fill the place. The group tries to escape, only to find that the gates are locked and can’t be breached.
To win permission to leave from the resurrected Goodman, all the guests must submit to a group truth session where unpleasant secrets are revealed. All are changed in one way or another.
What all this is meant to signify remains unclear; what’s undeniable is that after a piquant and promising start, the film drifts into byways that are disturbing, but not terribly clever or involving. The picture is given impressive sheen by Jenny Möller’s elegant production design and Adam Bricker’s lustrous cinematography, but Spencer Houck’s editing slows things to a crawl, and Joseph Trapanese’s score adds to the feel of pretentious moodiness.
Perhaps the overall effect would be less annoying if the cast were more animated, but Grabinski’s direction negates that possibility; many of the line readings are so slow that there’s space for monologues between the words. Root’s customary oddity serves him well, and Yi’s dour approach suits Gretel nicely, even in a dark last-act twist; but everyone else suffers, including McHale and Bishé, although they manage some spark in the initial section of the film. Madrigal doesn’t have a lot of screen time, but his deadpan shtick mirrors the viewer’s incomprehension at what’s going on.
The title suggests that there’s really no such thing as the “happily ever after” of fairy-tales. But most viewers won’t be all that happy as they’re watching the proceedings on the screen, either. “Happily” is an odd duck, but it never turns into a swan.