Judy Greer is one of those character actors who instantly elevates whatever material she’s given, be it movie or TV show. With almost a hundred and thirty credits to her name, spanning over two decades, her impeccable comedic timing has been on display countless times (think Kitty Sanchez from Arrested Development or Cheryl Tunt from Archer), but Greer can also show her versatility as a dramatic actress—consider her brief, powerful monologue in The Descendants. Now, with the spirited competence demonstrated in her directorial debut, the far from unique but perfectly affable ensemble dramedy A Happening of Monumental Proportions, Greer might be on the verge of a second career path.
This is one of those movies that collect a bunch of kooky day-in-the-life vignettes centered on eccentric characters who are tangentially connected, leading to a climax that brings them together either narratively or thematically. When talking about this style of feature, every film critic is contractually obligated to bring up Short Cuts and Magnolia as the two obvious and best-known examples. In the case of AHOMP, Gary Lundy’s script focuses on a variety of funny, depressing or crazy situations taking place in and around a fairly generic urban high school during Career Day, that glorious time when 15-year-olds get to undermine a grown person’s lifetime’s achievements. “Be prepared,” a co-worker warns one of the parents, “They will make you feel like a loser.”
That parent is Daniel (Common), who struggles to make it through the shittiest day of his life. First, the husband of the assistant (Jennifer Garner) with whom he’s having an affair insists on meeting him for coffee so he can beat the crap out of him. Then, going with the coffee theme, his asshole of a boss (Bradley Whitford) accuses him of sabotaging the office coffee machine and leaving a drawing of a dick next to it.
The stringent investigation into who killed the caffeine supply is reminiscent of a less nihilist Office Space. A lot of 9 to 5ers can relate to trivial stuff being treated as if it’s the end of the world, and Greer has a lot of fun extracting this absurdity. Daniel’s story takes the lion’s share of runtime amongst the others, turning the character into the closest we get to a protagonist. Casting Common here is smart, since he’s one of those actors who can instantaneously radiate empathy. Being the only plotline that takes place outside of the high school setting, this story at first feels out of place, but eventually gels with the overall narrative as we reach the third act.
The second story is a fairly predictable yet amusing comedy of errors about two clueless teachers (Allison Janney and Rob Riggle) who find the dead body of the groundskeeper and try to keep him hidden from the children until he’s taken away. The Death at a Funeral-type wacky antics wear thin after a while, especially when a horribly miscast Katie Holmes shows up as a paramedic who acts like an ’80s sit-com schlubby construction worker. However, it’s more or less saved by a terrific running gag where Riggle’s racist character keeps trying to figure out how a Mexican groundskeeper can be named Kevin.
The third story almost veers into on-the-nose melodrama we’ve seen many times before in high school flicks—the nerdy new kid in school (Marcus Eckert) is disillusioned by the fact that he can’t make new friends. Yet the paint-by-numbers quality of this story is balanced by the spirited positive energy displayed by Eckert. He reminded me of a young version of William H. Macy’s character in Magnolia, desperately longing for any form of emotional connection. He has a lot of love; he just doesn’t know where to put it.
The fourth story chronicles the deep dive into suicidal depression a music teacher (Anders Holm) suffers after his promising record deal falls through and he’s given hell on earth as he still has to get through a day of staring at the hope-filled eyes of his students. Of course he ends up having an existential meltdown in class, as such dramedy premises require. There’s nothing really new here, but as with the rest of the stories, Greer and her cast manage to infuse witty banter into the proceedings to keep us going. In this case, watching the teacher’s co-worker (John Cho) attempt to lighten the mood by describing in detail how a kid in his class crapped his pants is as giggle-inducing as it sounds.
The way his story connects with the almost equally depressed new kid doesn’t quite land, mainly because Greer’s modest runtime of 75 minutes sans credits, more than likely due to the low budget and tight production schedule, doesn’t allow for a more expansive emotional development between these characters in order to justify the ambitious dramatics that envelop the third act. This is a problem with how some of the other stories wrap up as well, like the way Daniel and his prickly boss end up. The manic, absurdist comedy on display here thrives on immediacy, so a short runtime works in its favor, but to pull off the tear-jerking finales to most of the stories would have required Greer to have Altman and PT Anderson’s leisurely three-hour canvas.
As far as this sub-genre is concerned, Greer doesn’t rewrite any rules, but though AHOMP might not be a crowning achievement, it’s occasionally delightful, frequently funny, and good enough to make me look forward to what Greer will do next behind the camera.
Director: Judy Greer
Writer: Gary Lundy
Starring: Common, Jennifer Garner, Bradley Whitford, Allison Janney, Rob Riggle, Anders Holm, Marcus Eckert
Release Date: September 21, 2018
Oktay Ege Kozak is a screenwriter, script coach and film critic. He lives near Portland, Ore., with his wife, daughter, and two King Charles Spaniels.