'Happy Tears': Of Family Dysfunction And Hilarity

Demi Moore, Parker Posey

Family Ties: Demi Moore and Parker Posey play two sisters brought together by their aging father. John Baer hide caption

itoggle caption John Baer

Happy Tears

  • Director: Mitchell Lichtenstein
  • Genre: Dramatic Comedy
  • Running Time: 95 minutes

Rated R: Skin and drugs

With: Parker Posey, Demi Moore, Ellen Barkin, Rip Torn, Christian Camargo

Nothing forces family skeletons out of closets quite like sibling conferences about elder care, a subject as old as King Lear on the page but relatively untapped at the movies — at least until Tamara Jenkins' 2007 black comedy The Savages. Jenkins' graphic, refreshingly irreverent candor about aging and family pathology exerts a clear and present influence on Happy Tears. Oedipus flies low over this derivative but weirdly compelling new film by Mitchell Lichtenstein, whose last opus was Teeth, in which a teenager deploys her vagina dentate to vaguely feminist ends.

As in The Savages, the focus falls less on the ailing father — a wild child retired country/blues singer showing early signs of dementia, played by Rip Torn — than on the grown daughters who convene at his Pittsburgh home to decide what to do with Dad. In the process, the women, played by Parker Posey and Demi Moore, are forced to take stock of their own dubious achievements.

Aging gracefully out of the narrow time band of stardom afforded women by Hollywood, Moore is pleasingly unadorned and earthy as Laura, a sardonic realist who cares for her father while eking out a meager living with her husband and three children. Posey is her usual spacey self as Jayne, a daddy's girl with a habit of zoning out of unpleasant reality into fantasies that mash together her anxieties and desires, while affording Lichtenstein regular opportunities to indulge in dream sequences involving a high-end shoe salesman morphing into a buzzard and illicit copulation within a giant jellyfish.

Go figure, but for what it's worth, the director is the son of the late pop artist Roy Lichtenstein, while one of the film's several emotionally volatile offspring is, um, the son of a famous artist who very much doesn't want to live in the shadow of his deceased dad. And the original paintings used in the movie, onto which the long-faced son drips his own blood, are not the elder Lichtenstein's but rather those of the darker, less jaunty abstract artist Cy Twombly.

Rip Torn i

Grumpy Old Man: Rip Torn plays Joe, an aging father and retired country/blues singer. John Baer hide caption

itoggle caption John Baer
Rip Torn

Grumpy Old Man: Rip Torn plays Joe, an aging father and retired country/blues singer.

John Baer

Lichtenstein is neither as skilled a filmmaker nor as sharp a psychological observer as Jenkins is. But Happy Tears has its moments, some of them provided by Ellen Barkin, who returns after a long absence to play to the hilarious hilt Joe's current squeeze: Shelly, a ravaged crackhead whose only support for her claim to being a nurse is the stethoscope permanently slung across her shoulders. The movie's deadpan tone and pacing match Posey's woozy, off-kilter arrhythmia, which may baffle those accustomed to zippier action — just as Lichtenstein's insistence on the family as an incubator of madness may unnerve those who remember blissful suburban childhoods.

The rest of its audience is likely to appreciate Lichtenstein's sly way with a scalpel — the way he skewers the illusions, excuses and evasions of this sorry crew and puts his finger on the testy blend of love and rage, self-sacrifice and self-interest that courses through unhappy families.

Yet there's also a celebratory feel to the reluctant symbiosis between the two sisters, the way each scrambles to fill a temperamental niche left vacant by the other. We may never get what we deserve in life, Lichtenstein suggests, but it's worth going for what we want. The more unorthodox the path to fulfillment, the better.

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