When sisters Jayne (Parker Posey) and Laura (Demi Moore) return to the house they grew up in to care for their aging father, they're unwittingly forced to examine their own lives and face the harsh reality of childhood memories and what they've become as adults.
If the plot sounds familiar, it's because several films of late (e.g. Away From Here, The Savages, and Is Anybody There?) have explored similar territory. But Mitchell Lichtenstein's Happy Tears takes a slightly different tact by uncovering the light-hearted humor buried beneath the layers of heartache and turmoil. While those films were certainly moving portrayals of what it's like to care for a family member who suffers from Alzheimer's disease or any of the other forms of dementia, it's actually quite refreshing to see its lighter side. Happy Tears never patronizes the sensitive subject and Lichtenstein always manages to honorably walk the thin line between respect and humor.
Most of the funny stuff comes from Posey's brilliant performance as the more flighty of the two sisters. She has as much trouble separating life's real moments from her own imagined ones as most people having distinguishing dark blue shoes from black ones. Which leads to a recurring metaphor that has Jayne constantly arguing about whether her new $1800 boots are blue or black. Yes, most of the metaphors are that ham-fisted, but with only two films under his belt (the other one, Teeth) Lichtenstein - the son of famous painter, Roy Lichtenstein - hasn't yet mastered the more subtle sides of finesse.
Jayne reluctantly leaves the comfort of her plush life in San Francisco provided by her mentally unstable but wealthy artist husband (Christian Carmargo) - and flies to Pittsburgh to help her sister, Laura with the care of their father, Joe (Rip Torn). Moore and Posey are perfectly believable as sisters who, despite the different courses their lives have taken, have retained a deep sibling bond that's hard to fake on film. We feel the friction of down-to-earth Laura's resentment toward her sister who has fallen into the lap of luxury while she, herself has had to work for every penny. Jayne's jealousy of Laura's large family is evident as she's struggling to conceive. Yet the two have a way of communicating without words that is real and convincing.
Moore's maternal Laura is the more understated of the two sisters, but the character plays nicely against Posey's loopy Jayne. She brings clarity and precision to the difficult situation while most of the other characters circle around the dying Joe as if sharks waiting for the next blood meal. Many actors would wilt in the supporting role to such a strong, flashy character as Jayne, but Moore's experience and professionalism allow her to shine as the seething realist.
Happy Tears is not a perfect film by any means. In fact, it's wrought with numerous imperfections and scatterbrained threads that never end up anywhere interesting. And as the story unfolds, more of its shortcomings become evident, such as Ellen Barkin as Joe's crack addict (paid) girlfriend who is more disgusting and repulsive than entertaining. I couldn't help but wonder if Barkin's facelift had really gone that bad. But to the film's credit, we're always left guessing where it's all going. What we initially think is just another one of those dramatic studies of a dysfunctional family trying cope with life's harsh realities, actually turns out to be quite more. Lichtenstein brings in enough interesting side stories - such as buried treasures, fantasy sequences, and peculiar characters - to keep us on our toes. Not all of the film's quirky side stories work, but it hits on enough of them to make Happy Tears a pleasantly entertaining little mash-up of The King of California, The Savages, and The Royal Tenenbaums.