The lives of step-siblings Mamie (Lisa Kudrow) and Charley (Steve Coogan), while extremely involved in themselves, are, additionally, forever intertwined by the child they procreated and then lost track of. Aspiring filmmaker Nicky (Jesse Bradford) comes to Mamie one day, saying he knows where her son is, but blackmails her and her Latin masseur boyfriend (Bobby Cannavale) into helping him with a film project which will kick-start his career. Meanwhile, the now-gay Charley is bent on proving that the child of his lesbian friend Pam (Laura Dern) is actually the product of a sperm donation his lover (David Sutcliffe) once provided them with years ago. Meanwhile, an employee of Charley's, Otis (Jason Ritter), is secretly in love with him but succumbs to the wiles of Jude (Maggie Gyllenhaal), an opportunist who beds both him and his wealthy dad, Frank (Tom Arnold).
Rarely has a film started so brilliantly and then so willfully shot itself directly in the foot. Happy Endings writer-director Don Roos makes heavy use of titles to provide detailed backstory and sometimes even the inner thoughts of his characters. A flood of information places sometimes stringent demands on the viewer trying to follow the onscreen action, but much of it is undoubtedly funny. However, as the story progresses, the titles become more intrusive and ever smarmier in their wise-ass humor, and, by the end, when Roos employs them to describe what will happen to everyone in the future, they are downright insufferable. There was a period, starting with The African Queen, in which John Huston would seem to suddenly tire of whatever carefully wrought film he was working on, and purposely sabotage its finale by sending it up, as if the entire thing were just one meaningless joke for this god of cinema to toss away. Roos seems to do likewise here, frantically tying up loose ends with bad ideas (like the eventual "happy ending" pairing of Mamie and Frank) with a magisterial effrontery that's almost an insult to an audience that has already put up with a lot.
It's a shame because so much that has gone before is so good. Ravishingly shot by Clark Mathis, Happy Endings has a refulgent L.A.-gleaming glamour, whip-crack comic pacing and is chockablock with hilarious lines. A shot of teenage Mamie's mother beating the guilty young Charley while Mamie vomits out of the car window is as telling and silent-movie genius as anything Buster Keaton ever did. Roos clearly adores his highly fetching cast, and the camera caresses them, making the most of their every comic tic and moue.
Kudrow remains one of the great farceurs of our time, with a kind of uncannily unpredictable, keep-you-on-your-toes, surefire timing reminiscent of the great Madeline Kahn. As the plot's more dramatic developments occur, her performance attains an impressive power and depth unlike anything she's ever shown before. Gyllenhaal, with her Claudette Colbert impishness, is a sheer, snarky delight, an archetypal L.A. fun girl, on the easy hustle, with many of Roos' best lines. ("Oh, yeah, it's the tits, right?" she says, before turning over to better sexually service a waffling Otis.) Her final confrontation with Frank is beautifully played, as you are left wondering what, if any, were her true motivations.
Bradford brings a very funny, manic energy to the already keyed-up cast, as a kind of hustler even more formidable than any little Sunset Boulevard slut: a wannabe Spielberg, gunning on a grant. Arnold is perfectly cast as a romantic dupe and, as sweatily off-putting as this actor can be, even makes him rather touching. Cannavale has his usual seigneurial sexiness and adds to the fun with sub-Fernando Lamas, ethnically tinged line readings that are at once hideous and hysterical.
Some of the other actors are less effective. Coogan is completely miscast as this gay Felix Unger (or is that redundant?) character, his brand of sly wit being completely at odds with the specific frilly type of neurosis demanded of him here. And, God knows, you don't want to see him get all teary and bleary with sentiment as he does at the finale. As one of the "cradle-robbing" lesbians, Laura Dern absolutely needs to relax her facial muscles: Tension of the most strained variety seems to be the only onscreen emotion this actress can muster these days.