Happy Birthday, Harris Malden

Reviewed By David Cornelius
Posted 06/19/08 10:32:19

"How exactly does a robot sweat, anyway?"
3 stars (Just Average)

SCREENED AT THE 2008 CINEVEGAS FILM FESTIVAL: Sweetness abounds in “Happy Birthday Harris Malden,” a surprisingly gentle oddball comedy from the don’t-call-us-a-comedy-troupe group of filmmaker/performers credited collectively as “Sweaty Robot.” The team’s nutty name and the film’s nuttier premise suggests unchecked zaniness, yet the Sweaty Robot folks ground their comedy with tenderness and an intentional lack of absurdity. The emphasis is on performance and character, not comic insanity, as if you took a Kids in the Hall sketch and asked Robert Altman to direct.

“Birthday” began life a few years back as a quirky, funny short film, and that explains the film’s outlandish set-up. Only the quick comedy kick of a YouTube video could create a punchline like this: 25-year-old Harris Malden, unable to grow facial hair of his own, draws a fake moustache on his face every morning, which he hopes to pass off as the real thing. The short is a fun twist on the guaranteed ineptitude of a comb-over or a bad toupee; Harris’ darkest secret isn’t really a secret to anyone with working eyes, but oh, how deeply he believes he’s mastered the art of deception.

In stretching this concept to feature length, the filmmakers make the smart move of toning down the winking humor and dialing up a more natural, grounded feel. They understand that in five minutes, you have to get to the joke fast, but in eighty minutes, you need more than just a kooky punchline. And so Sweaty Robot - credited together as writers and directors, the collective includes actors Juan Cardarelli, Nick Gregorio, Eric M. Levy; producer Benjamin Davidow; and cinematographer Matthew Sanchez - transplant the Harris character (played by Gregorio) into a neighborhood existing mostly in the real world, or at least right next door to it.

This makes the film nothing like what you’d expect, but in a good way. Gone are the obvious yuks of a comedy sketch, and in their place are a certain sweetness and charm. When Harris delivers a handwritten résumé (“I wrote it myself, in cursive”) to a potential employer, we grin, knowing that this film is about to take us someplace curiously warm and friendly.

Friendship abounds here; Harris’ chums allow his quirks out of love and affection, and they protect him from an outside world that can’t understand his quirks. Perhaps they have protected him too much. When Susan (Brigitte Hagerman), the fiancée of Harris’ best friend Paul (Levy), angrily blurts out “You fake your moustache!!” to Harris during his birthday party, it sets off a serious emotional breakdown in the poor guy - but it also leads to his eventual growth, as he realizes it’s time to move on in life, to forget and forgive the past traumas that led to Harris’ facial fib.

This main storyline is a delight, anchored by the strange, fascinating performance by Gregorio, who somehow manages to keep Harris from ever becoming a one-note caricature. But “Birthday” is too crowded with characters and plot threads, obviously added to flesh out Harris’ universe - and help stretch the film to feature length. The Paul/Susan stuff, in which Susan must learn to deal with Paul’s unusual home life and the secrets he’s kept, is interesting but a bit too thin to carry us through, while a second subplot, in which Harris’ brother Melvin (Cardarelli) lands a spot in a bikini babe-filled shampoo commercial, constantly threatens to take the movie off course.

I admire the way the filmmakers manage to have so much going on at once, with natural, overlapping dialogue filling each scene with an Altman-esque collage of story and character. But there comes a point where the whole thing loses focus, just a bit, just enough to distract. Either because of the multiple voices aspect of the five-director process or in spite of it, “Birthday” too often gets sidetracked within its own little world. Fortunately, it’s such a pleasant, huggable little world, and even the wrong notes offer a fresh dose of unique charm.

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