See if this one sounds familiar: A dysfunctional family—including a cranky old-timer, a volatile pill-popping loafer and a hapless straight man trying to keep everything together—journeys across America, and unexpected bonding takes place along the way. Old people get stoned, the all-white main cast initiates awkward race-relational comedy, opening and closing titles revel in a “hand-drawn” font, and a plucky indie soundtrack lilts overhead, the sort one would have expected to have disappeared by now—along with this sort of film. Its closest neighbor of course is Little Miss Sunshine, but This Is Happening borrows so liberally from the quirky indie dramedy oeuvre it feels like Jaffe just put dozens of the same kind of film into a blender and served whatever poured out.
While ostensibly a “road trip movie,” This Is Happening is ultimately too leaden to fully earn that description—especially when it’s been applied to the more accomplished likes of Sideways and As Good As It Gets, two other indie road comedies with some actual momentum behind them. Though we’re transported from Los Angeles to Seattle and back again, as siblings Phil (James Wolk) and Megan (Mickey Sumner) attempt to drive their grandmother Estelle (Cloris Leachman) to an assisted care facility, there’s little sense of real movement in the film. This Is Happening remains static in motel rooms, diners and old family homes, curiously disjointed by lacking in geographical clarity from scene to scene.
Ryan Jaffe’s film—his first feature as writer-director—stops and starts, continually switching between Phil and Megan as they cross the States searching for their grandmother, Estelle as she drives back home to LA, having gone AWOL after discovering her family’s designs to put her into assisted care (in the passenger seat her dead, taxidermy-preserved dog whom she holds conversations with, Bring Me The Head of Alfredo Garcia-style), and Philip and Megan’s father/Estelle’s son Steven (Judd Nelson) as he returns to his childhood home to reminisce. There’s a fair bit going on, but simply not enough to invest in, as the individual strands are too meagre, too disconnected to make a satisfying whole.
Instead, This Is Happening works like a series of kooky subplots given feature-length import, the most drama pulled from fleeting moments: Phil contemplating ditching a manipulative girlfriend; Megan trying her hand at selling some weed; and Estelle seeking salvation through burying her stuffed hound. The sitcom-style improbabilities also stack up: Phil and Megan coincidentally locate Estelle on their epic East Coast search (without any leads); later the mild-mannered Phil suddenly decides to hold up a hospital with a toy gun. It’s a set of events that might seem more acceptable in TV comedy drama, but on the big screen they’re just glaringly unlikely.
Luckily the cast are game for whatever; Cloris Leachman, especially, injects some life into the grumpy-old-person-who-bitches-and-does-drugs routine by appearing, at times, genuinely vulnerable. (And not just Hollywood vulnerable: A scene in which Estelle removes her make-up and wig in front of a mirror, revealing the aged woman underneath, seems like it might have been very difficult for Leachman to perform.) Mickey Sumner and James Wolk are charming in underwritten roles, while the film also reminds you that Judd Nelson is still alive, which is helpful because he turns in solid work as an allegedly heartless man rediscovering his roots. He deserves better, though—everyone in the cast deserves better, has done better and will hopefully do better again.
Director: Ryan Jaffe
Writer: Ryan Jaffe
Starring: Cloris Leachman, James Wolk, Mickey Sumner, Judd Nelson
Release Date: October 2, 2015