What is happiness? Professional success? Personal success? Love? A warm gun? To be honest, I'm still not sure myself (though I really do hope it's not the latter). The fact of the matter is, even if one could define it, discovering what happiness is, is really only half the battle. Actually attaining it, is an entirely different matter altogether. That's the main dilemma at the center of Anne Sewitsky's Norwegian dramedy, 'Happy, Happy,' and as the film's quartet of frustrated, lost characters flirt with bits of joy and further bouts of sorrow, the movie effectively blends humor and pathos into an emotional, sometimes even insightful package. Unfortunately, the dramatic territory covered can't help but feel familiar, and while performances are all strong, the actual situations and conflicts we're treated to, cover very little new ground.
Kaja (Agnes Kittelsen) is a sweet, warmhearted woman who somehow remains optimistic, even while trapped in a relatively joyless marriage. Though she shows her husband love, he can't seem to reciprocate, apparently tormented by his own secret frustrations. When a new couple moves into the neighborhood, sparks fly and emotions run rampant, forever changing the dynamics between the lovers. Oscillating through stretches of humorous glee and painful conflict, Kaja struggles to find balance and happiness.
Character interaction is paramount here, and thankfully the director does a great job of highlighting the talented cast. The film favors an emphasis on subtle deliveries, mannerisms and little glances in order to slowly unfold realizations and growth. A quirky blend of odd behavior and a slightly twisted sense of humor also pervade the work, balancing the romantic and tragic with awkward comedy. Sewitsky's visual style is understated, opting for a more fly-on-the-wall approach that fosters natural acting and emotion. It's actually the smaller moments that end up working the best throughout the picture, with little epiphanies holding subtle cinematic weight. A sequence where one character realizes that he's in love with another, for instance, serves as one of the film's most powerful scenes, mostly thanks to the rather unassuming, low key manner in which the director and actors portray it.
The performances are all great, and the way the cast plays off each other is integral to the film's success. Agnes Kittelsen brings an almost childlike spark of enthusiasm to Kaja. Even as the character gradually comes to grips with the reality of her unhappy situation, she never fully loses her upbeat spirit. Henrik Rafaelsen and Maibritt Saerens stir things up as the new couple in town, and each performer crafts a nuanced, realistic individual. One of the trickiest characters to pull off is Kaja's frustrated and often cruel husband, Eirik, and Joachim Rafaelsen rises to the challenge admirably. He could have easily come across as lifeless and wholly unlikeable, but Rafaelsen hones the role in with tragic humanity. In fact, all of the characters flirt with likeable and unlikeable actions throughout the proceedings, resulting in some refreshingly complex and often very gray moral quandaries.
Despite its strengths, the movie does have some notable flaws. Sewitsky indulges in a very unnecessary stylistic diversion that involves cutting to an unrelated group of singers who stare at the camera and perform. On paper this might have seemed like a fun way to play up the story's odd sense of humor, but in practice it just clashes with the movie's otherwise unassuming style. A subplot involving Kaja's young son and her neighbor's adopted African child could potentially rub many people the wrong way, but I did find the payoff just strong enough to warrant its inclusion. While the script features interesting characters, the overall conflict is nothing we haven't seen before. Dysfunctional couples seeking solace out of troubled relationships isn't anything new, and without giving too much away, the central reason behind the schism in Kaja's marriage features a plot point that's been overused in recent years. Still, even though the film doesn't exactly have anything new to say with its story, the execution is heartfelt and effective. We've seen all these dramatic beats before, but the honest, thoughtful observations end up elevating the experience.
Unhappiness can do different things to different people. It can make us sad. It can make us frustrated. It can even make us cruel. 'Happy, Happy' examines all of these scenarios with quirky wit and perceptive drama. Some elements of the plot are overdone and clichéd, but the heart of the story and nuance of the characters' outweigh the movie's flaws. Hopeful, emotional, and entertaining, the filmmaker's end up with a worthwhile and insightful effort.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
Magnolia brings 'Happy, Happy' to Blu-ray on a BD-25 disc housed in a keepcase. Some skippable trailers play upon startup before transitioning to a standard menu. The packaging indicates that the release is region A compatible.
The movie is presented in a 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 transfer in the 1.85:1 aspect ratio. Shot on 16mm, the film has a decent but slightly underwhelming appearance.
The source print is clean and features some periodic, light grain. With that said, the grain can look slightly static in a few isolated shots, which might be indicative of some digital processing. Detail is nice, but the image is on the soft side, rarely displaying any impressive levels of clarity. Colors are subdued and contrast is a bit low, giving the picture a dim appearance that lacks pop. Black levels are consistent and fairly deep. Banding pops up in a fleeting shot or two and some noise is visible in nighttime scenes.
While far from a real standout, 'Happy, Happy' features a serviceable transfer that, for the most part, seems to reflect the filmmakers' intended aesthetic. A few minor artifacts show up from time to time and some slight processing may have been applied, but overall, this is a decent image.
The movie is provided with a Norwegian DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 track with optional English, English SDH and Spanish subtitles. Mostly dialogue driven, the track is quiet and subtle but still effective.
Dialogue is clean and crisp throughout. The soundstage is mostly front-centric but does widen up a bit when appropriate, with objects and characters spaced directionally around the room. The film's soundtrack also features nice separation, with strong fidelity and even some decent bass response. While much of the movie can be a little flat, dynamic range proves to be nice and wide in the few instances that call for it. Balance between the various audio elements is handled well.
The audio has a fittingly delicate quality that livens up a hair during more dramatic or joyful moments. It certainly won't blow you away with immersion, but the mix complements the filmmakers' understated style nicely.
'Happy, Happy' is an interesting but not altogether original look at the struggles and joys of life. Its plot isn't exactly covering any new territory, but the execution is insightful enough to make for a worthwhile experience. The video transfer is a little underwhelming but still solid, and while quiet, the audio track suits the content well. Unfortunately, there are no supplements outside of a few trailers. Still, the disc gets the job done and the movie itself is definitely worth a look.