Wretches hate to see other people happy. Public happiness only serves as a reminder that they aren’t happy. A veteran parent might, for instance, burst new parents’ delighted bubbles by taunting them with visions of sleep regression yet to come. Two long-term partners might dull a new couple’s glow with forewarning about the honeymoon phase’s short lifespan. Everyone loves a little schadenfreude, especially concerning people who somehow know how to make life work and need to be taken down a peg, not because they’re jerks but because they’re content. How dare anyone figure their shit out in a world where cultural mores universally dictate that we all grow up to be miserable pricks?
In writer/director BenDavid Grabinski’s Happily, the pricks are Karen (Natalie Zea), Val (Paul Scheer), Patricia (Natalie Morales), Donald (Jon Daly), Maude (Kirby Howell-Baptiste), Carla (Shannon Woodward), Richard (Breckin Meyer) and Gretel (Charlene Yi). The subjects of their animus are Tom (Joel McHale) and Janet (Kerry Bishé), married for 14 years and incapable of not sneaking off to the bathroom at someone else’s house party for a quickie. They’re desperately in love and their friends can’t stand it. Sure, there’s a line that shouldn’t be crossed regarding public displays of affection, but Tom and Janet have the good decency to play (most) of their grab-ass games just out of view. Still, they’re seen as weird, which means their pals are jealous, which is why they’re disinvited from a weekend getaway. Everybody hates them.
Then Tom and Janet are paid a visit by Goodman (Stephen Root), who at first appears to be a government spook but actually works for an organization that operates “on a higher level of authority,” in his words. He tries persuading them that their bliss is a bureaucratic slip-up on his employers’ behalf, and that to rectify the situation (and rectify it they must), they have to stick syringes of neon green mystery juice into their thighs. Unfortunately for Goodman, Tom and Janet refuse and the conversation, put in generous terms, goes sour. Fortunately, they’re given a “get out of town free” card when their friends have a change of heart and ask them to come away after all. Unfortunately, something sinister is afoot, no matter how hard each person tries to pretend this trip has neither underlying agendas nor dirty secrets.
Happily lives in the porous space between genres, where horror, thriller and several stripes of comedy—notably dark and romantic—commingle with one another. First-time feature helmer Grabinski firmly steers his script away from sticking in one mode or another: It’s neither purely scary, nor purely tense, nor purely hilarious, but instead most or all of these at once, producing a uniquely unnerving tone where shortness of breath in one moment instantaneously gives way to cackles in the next. Grabinski isn’t the first filmmaker to blend genres, but it’s not every day genres are blended so well that basic qualifiers for describing them all feel ill-suited for the picture they’re being applied to. “Horror-romantic-thriller-comedy-party movie” does Happily little justice.
But that speaks to the specificity of Grabinski’s vision, and to the familiar, acrid social dynamic Tom and Janet share with their horrible friends. “Everyone’s an asshole” is a shallow, pathetically easy thesis to bear out when you’re the one holding the pen and the world is your literal invention, because imagining the worst of people when you’re living among some of the worst of times takes remarkably low effort: The last year has proven just what little regard a not-insignificant percentage of Americans have for their neighbors, whether they’re refusing to mask up or denying that there’s a lethal virus circulating the country in the first place.
But Happily doesn’t scratch that jaundiced itch. Grabinski’s characters are, of course, each distinctly repulsive, but he largely treats them as flawed in the way we all are instead of indicting them. In fact, the film is surprisingly optimistic: Only one person out of ten is irredeemable (and you won’t guess who)! That’s a heartening statistic. Revel in Scheer’s unctuous performance as an obnoxious rockstar chef, or Daly’s as an over-the-hill frat bro, or Morales’ as the loquaciously shady chum, but by the time the movie ends you’ll recognize each of them as partial products of the individual pressures they face as adults. No wonder they all hate Tom and Janet. American life is so unhinged in 2021 (as it was in 2019, when Happily went into production) that it comes as no surprise their clique would seethe with jealousy at them for each having a safe haven to come home to. That’s what Tom and Janet each are for the other.
Grabinski’s casting director, Jenny Jue, pulled off a miracle with McHale and Bishé. However much the pair tried with each take, their chemistry is so natural that they don’t appear to be trying at all: They work easily together, as Tom and Janet should as characters. (They’re both hot as hell, too, which helps sell their irrepressible lust.) While they’re busy making Happily horny, Grabinski’s busy making it look ridiculously cool, whether with flashes of red lighting to turn up the film’s sense of passion, or with stray split diopter shots to lend it immediacy.
Happily is altogether vital, which makes the ending (which comes too quickly after Grabinski throws his curveball into the script) feel like a brushoff. There’s intelligence behind his climax, a big idea about how we imagine middle-aged Americans bound by matrimony are supposed to behave. Given even five more minutes, that idea might’ve been more satisfactorily explored. But even without precious extra time, Happily is a hoot—sharply made, wonderfully acted, and clear proof of Grabinski’s present skill and future potential.
Director: BenDavid Grabinski
Writer: BenDavid Grabinski
Starring: Joel McHale, Kerry Bishé, Stephen Root, Natalie Zea, Paul Scheer, Natalie Morales, Jon Daly, Kirby Howell-Baptiste, Shannon Woodward, Breckin Meyer, Charlene Yi
Release Date: March 19, 2021
Bostonian culture journalist Andy Crump covers the movies, beer, music, and being a dad for way too many outlets, perhaps even yours. He has contributed to Paste since 2013. You can follow him on Twitter and find his collected work at his personal blog. He’s composed of roughly 65% craft beer.