Film Review: A Happening of Monumental Proportions

Independent comedy-drama about a fateful career day at a Los Angeles private school strands a high-profile cast in a pointless intermingling of stories leading nowhere.
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Morbid whimsy is great, and A Happening of Monumental Proportions signals such with Allison Janney and Rob Riggle as two private-school staffers—it's unclear if they're teachers or administrators, though Janney's character seems to be in charge—finding their groundskeeper dead one morning. Intent on not letting the soon-to-arrive children be traumatized by the sight, and somehow being told by 911 that police won't be notified since it's "not an emergency," they carry the poor man to the teachers’ lounge to stash him. It's a measure of the movie's disassociation from everyday life that the Bacchanalian bounty of donuts, bear claws and other pastries the school puts out for the teachers is as equally hard to believe as the Weekend at Bernie's bit. But then, Weekend at Bernie's was morbid whimsy done right, a standard this first produced screenplay by Gary Lundy sadly does not achieve.

Marking the directorial debut of actress Judy Greer, this seriocomedy of students, parents and others throughout a single day overflows with formidable acting talent, demonstrating the deserved high level of esteem in which Greer is held by her peers. John Cho, Nat Faxon, Jennifer Garner, Katie Holmes, Al Madrigal and Kumail Nanjiani all contribute bit parts, and the main cast includes not only Janney and Riggle but rapper-actor Common, Anders Holm and Bradley Whitford. There's also a highly unexpected cameo at the end. It is a tremendous disappointment to find such estimable folk meandering in an only intermittently amusing story of no clear point or theme.

Common plays Daniel Crawford, the widower single dad of smart and together sixth-grader Patricia (Storm Reid). An account manager at a Los Angeles magazine publisher, he finds himself in crisis when an eccentric, possibly sociopathic new boss (Whitford) arrives, and Daniel's affair with his assistant Nadine (Garner) comes to light. Some of the movie's funniest bits are the comedy-of-manners moments featuring Nadine's business-executive husband, both on the phone with Daniel and communicating through a secretary, trying to arrange a formal lunch meeting in order to kick Daniel's ass. Complicating matters further, Daniel needs to be at the school by 1:30 p.m. for his daughter's career day, which another character earlier had described as "a happening of monumental proportions"…which, actually, not so much.

Patricia, meanwhile, finds herself the puppy-dog object of affection of socially maladroit new kid Darius (Marcus Eckert), while music teacher Mr. McRow (Holm) faces an existential crisis. Meanwhile, oblivious staff and attitudinal paramedics pass through the teachers’ lounge, where a teacher or administrator or maybe school secretary (Marla Sokoloff Puro)—again, unclear—works the phones trying to find out who exactly the dead guy is. A minor subplot about a lottery ticket goes nowhere, and the movie doesn't so much end as peter out.
Even granting the barely believable hauling of the body, we're also asked to accept that at an upscale private school a bully can steal a kid's glasses and no one cares and there are no repercussions. Please—these kinds of parents sue people for breakfast. Authorities seem OK with letting a corpse rot. And the outside contractor has no idea which groundskeeper was assigned to the school—which, man, you'd think would screw up payroll. This is not recognizable reality, and the script's poor attempts at glossing it over only make it worse.

The score does its best to keep up a sense of whimsy, but there are times when music overpowers the dialogue—the worst case being the bombastic Dan Deacon song "When I Was Done Dying," which drowns out everything in a cacophony that lasts nearly three and a half minutes. And while I hold Greer in high esteem myself and wish I could applaud her directing, it often feels flatfooted and a little disjointed, making the movie seem longer than its 74 minutes of story (and 81 minutes total with credits).