Grade: C

A movie involving multiple interlocking plots and characters depends, in the long run, not only on the inventiveness of the writing but on the degree of empathy it builds for the people who inhabit the script. Don Roos’ “Happy Endings” is intricately constructed and contains some clever twists; it also spices things up by adding jokey titles to the mix, telling us about the characters’ backgrounds and offering–in terms designed to elicit a chuckle–short-hand observations about them that clarify the story. But it fails signally in establishing any solid emotional connection with most of the people it portrays searching for love or (in some cases) some more mercenary goal. That’s partially the result of uneven casting, but mostly of the script, which even the best of the actors can’t invest with the richness it would need to come alive. One might think that a movie that runs well over two hours, uses split screens to double the information and adds parenthetic title cards to disclose even more “secrets” about the people we’re watching could get beneath the skin of its characters, but unfortunately this one–though it touches on some very important issues–never goes much under the surface. The result is that when those endings come along, one doesn’t much care whether they’re happy or not.

One of the central themes of Roos’ film is parenthood, but it’s linked with an equally important emphasis on deception. The story starts with Charley (Steve Coogan) and Mamie (Lisa Kudrow), step-siblings who years before as adolescents had had a sexual encounter that resulted in pregnancy. Though Mamie pretended to have had an abortion, she actually gave the child up for adoption. Now she’s a glum counselor in a women’s clinic involved with a handsome Latino masseur called Javier (Bobby Cannavale). Her story swings into motion when Nicky (Jesse Bradford), a bearded would-be filmmaker who quickly shows that he’s crafty, manipulative and unreliable, approaches her with an offer she won’t be able to refuse. Nicky claims to know the identity of Mamie’s son, and offers to reunite her with him if she’ll agree to cooperate with him on a documentary film recording their meeting–which he hopes will get him an AFI scholarship. She declines, but encourages him instead to turn his lens on Javier, an illegal who’s employed his undoubted magnetism to win a secure hold over his female customers; and Nicky agrees to the alternative. Meanwhile Charley, a restaurant owner, has entered a long-term relationship with partner Gil (David Sutcliffe). But there’s one fly in the ointment: Charley suspects that despite the women’s denials, the infant being raised by lesbians Diane (Sarah Clarke) and Pam (Laura Dern) is actually Gil’s son (he was one of the donors, though the women say his contribution didn’t take); and he undertakes a series of investigations and ruses designed to convince Gil to sue for custody of the child. Charley, meanwhile, is oblivious to the fact that Otis (Jason Ritter), a teen who works at his restaurant, has a crash on him. Otis is the son of Frank (Tom Arnold), a well-heeled widower worried that his son might be gay. This leaves an opening for the cunning, high-spirited Jude (Maggie Gyllenhaal), who’s not only taken on as singer in Otis’ garage band but seduces the boy, eagerly pretending to be his girlfriend for Frank’s benefit until she sees the value of takng up with the father instead. Thus all three stories are linked, not only by occasional meetings among the characters (a pregnant Jude, for instance, will eventually have a conversation with Mamie at the clinic), but by the recurrent emphases on the importance of family, the bond between parents and children, and the duplicity and calculation that occur in relationships.

This could all be the stuff of either heady melodrama or screwball comedy, but Roos is after a different tone. “Happy Endings” is instead like a soap opera played as dark comedy. At some points it’s virtually farcical and at others it seems intended to be perfectly serious, even harsh. There’s nothing wrong with such twists and turns of mood, so long as they’re successfully integrated into a satisfying whole. Here’s they’re not. The result is that while the Jude-Otis-Frank storyline, buoyed by the best performances from the vibrant Gyllenhaal, engaging Ritter and surprisingly likable Arnold, comes off pretty well, the others run quickly out of steam. Kudrow is a disappointingly colorless Mamie, and though both Bradford and Cannavale try hard to enliven her part of the story, they do so in ways that prove counterproductive, with the former coming across as obnoxious rather than weirdly charming and the latter overplaying the Latin lover business. Even worse is the Coogan-Sutcliffe-Clarke-Dern imbroglio, which isn’t just unpleasantly plotted, with Charley going to such cruel means to achieve his goal that he comes off as a real jerk, but is poorly acted to boot (even by the usually reliable Dern). It must be said in its favor that “Happy Endings” does manage to keep the story threads reasonably clear and springs a few good surprises (David Codron was the editor); for a modestly budgeted piece it also looks nice (the widescreen cinematography is by Clark Mathis). But the surface smoothness can’t make up for the deeper flaws.

There is one really telling moment in “Happy Endings,”, but it’s a blip. It comes when a character is flipping through a TV cable menu, and the listing includes “Secretary”–the truly black comedy Gyllenhaal made with James Spader. Seeing that title, however briefly, just makes one realize how tepid an experience this movie is by comparison.