You may find yourself weeping by the close of Mitchell Lichtenstein’s comedy-drama, but they won’t be the tears of joy the title promises. It will be because the movie reminds one of how bad American independent films—an endangered species under the best of circumstances—can be. It’s a depressing realization.
“Happy Tears” is a tale of two sisters called to care for their declining father. Jayne (Parker Posey) is the shopaholic wife of a well-to-do but troubled California painter (Christian Carmargo). She reluctantly returns to their childhood home in Pittsburgh at the insistence of her older sister Laura (Demi Moore) to spell her in caring for their deteriorating father, widower Joe (Rip Torn). Joe’s a rambunctious but declining guy who can no longer take care of himself and has invited Shelly (Ellen Barkin), a skanky so-called nurse whose real profession is undoubtedly very different, into his house and given her money.
What follows is a messy combination of alternating teary melodrama and rowdy farce, sometimes overlapping in especially sloppy fashion. On the one hand, you have the two sisters remembering their dead mother (shown periodically in flashback) and debating how to care for Joe. On the other there’s some slapstick stuff about a treasure the old man supposedly buried in the backyard decades before that the girls actually rent an earth-mover to locate. That leads to a sequence of drug-laced humor that has one of the girls involved with the youngish son of the operator of the machine. And for no apparent reason to a supposedly riotous scene in which the girls and their father go screeching around curbs and into ditches while driving to the airport. A coda connected to a yard sale in which one of the dead mother’s possessions is sold to a lanky fellow played by Roger Rees seems to have no point at all.
It’s not surprising that in such a morass the actors sink. Posey, who can do good work when firmly controlled, here indulges in her complete repertoire of tics and quirks, coming across as desperately overwrought. By contrast Moore is pallid and rather dull. Torn goes full-bore in his portrayal of an old rascal, but it’s pure shtick, and a scene of the guy’s incontinence near the start calls to mind a similarly humiliating turn forced upon another veteran years ago—the one Christopher Plummer gave in John Boorman’s 1990 catastrophe, “Where the Heart Is.” Barkin certainly looks seedy and loutish, but offers no further characterization to speak of, and the rest of the cast is undistinguished. So is the physical production, with bland cinematography from Jamie Anderson and a blander score by Robert Miller.
The central problems with “Happy Tears,” though, are the script and direction by Lichtenstein. He’s the son of painter Roy Lichtenstein, but on the evidence here he doesn’t seem to have much of a visual sense. Nor much talent for writing or helming, either. He could be called a triple threat, though in the present case that’s not a good thing.