Saturday, February 20, 2010

Happy Tears

The Parent Trap

Two sisters deal with their dad’s dementia in Happy Tears

By Pamela Zoslov

There’s a scene in Happy Tears in which Jackson (Christian Camargo), an art dealer who is going insane, cuts himself, and the spurting blood decorates the canvas of an abstract painting. The scene is a metaphor for the movie, which was written and directed by Mitchell Lichtenstein, son of famed Pop artist Roy Lichtenstein. Lichtenstein pére bleeds his personal history onto the canvas of this strange, often hilarious film about two sisters dealing with the dementia of their aging dad, Joe (Rip Torn as a randy hell-raiser even closer to reality than we imagined before his recent arrest for armed, drunken after-hours banking).

Named after one of Roy Lichtenstein’s most famous paintings, Happy Tears is informed by Mitchell’s experience, revealed in a Huffington Post interview, as a young man watching his mother lose her mind. (He would come home to find her drunk, sitting with her pet monkey on her shoulder.) He paints himself not only as Jackson, the dealer burdened with the task of managing his famous father’s legacy, but also as Jayne, Jackson’s pampered wife, who resorts to cheerful fantasy rather than face unpleasant realities.

Jayne, played magnificently by Parker Posey, indulges in $2,200 boots and clings to the heroic legends told by guitar-strumming old Joe, who boasts that he could have been a famous singer, has buried treasure in his backyard, and isn’t losing control of his mind and bowels. Her earthier sister Laura (Demi Moore), shoulders the dirty work of cleaning up Joe’s backside and tolerating his lady friend, Shelly (a brilliantly feral Ellen Barkin), a grifter in spike heels posing as a nurse.

Called back from California to the gritty Pittsburgh family home, Jayne drifts in and out of hallucinatory states to escape the realities of Dad’s dementia, Jackson’s fragmenting psyche and her continued infertility, while Laura, a pragmatic environmentalist in peasant blouses, tries to drag her into the real world, where Dad was a philanderer who cheated on “Mommy” for years.

Lichtenstein, whose previous film was the bizarre Teeth, which made literal the “vagina dentata” myth, ornaments this oddly touching family drama with audacious flights of fantasy: a shoe salesman transformed into a giant, predatory bird, Jackson bouncing off padded walls, a crazy backyard treasure hunt. These absurdist sequences, carried off with film-school flamboyance, will not be everyone’s cup of tea, but for those who favor smaller, offbeat movies, Happy Tears is a dream movie, graced by a dream cast.

1 comment:

Bob Ignizio said...

Good review, makes me wish I had gone to the screening for this one. 'Teeth' was interesting, if not exactly great, so I was hoping Lichtenstein's next movie would show some improvement.