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Happy Holidays

Reviewed By David Cornelius
Posted 12/01/08 15:45:38

"Happily unhappy."
4 stars (Worth A Look)

With family struggles, arguments between old friends, and a funeral on Christmas Eve, "Happy Holidays" welcomes dysfunction with open arms. But while there's enough sharp humor and witty dialogue to bring up memories of, say, Woody Allen, and while the plot may win comparison to countless reunion movies (shall we call this "The Big Gay Chill"), this isn't a film that tries to be anything else; it is, simply, a well-told story about interesting characters, the indie cinema version of a comfortable, clever novel.

Written by James Ferguson (who also directed) and Tom Misuraca (both making their feature debut), "Happy Holidays" begins its story on December 23, when Patrick (Paul Hungerford), whose pet grooming business makes him arguably the most recognizable gay face in his small Connecticut home town, backs out of going to North Carolina to spend Christmas with his boyfriend, Kevin (Bill Daly). His excuse is the sudden arrival of old friend Alden (John Crye), who's fled back to town after a recent mugging - and, worse, a wedding proposal from his girlfriend.

Really, though, Patrick is just one big mess, despite the outwardly happy view of his relationship. He and Kevin live not just in the town where Patrick grew up, but in the very house, too. He's convinced his parents disapprove of him. He's unhappy with just about every aspect of his life. Hungerford is fabulous in the role, if only for showing enough restraint to avoid turning Patrick into an unlovable, wishy-washy loser; his Patrick is instead down-to-earth in his neuroses, with a quick enough wit to come off like a cleverer version of people we probably know in real life.

That wit is the film's best aspect. Ferguson and Misuraca's screenplay lives and breathes in the little moments, the corners of the action. Throwaway comments are gold, tiny bits of business that give the story an extra layer of rich detail.

As Patrick and Alden grow comfortable in their miseries, they stumble upon Kirby (Thomas Rhoads), another old high school pal of Patrick's (Alden hated him, and still does) who's in town for his father's funeral. Really, though, the womanizing Kirby is using the funeral as an excuse to get away from his wife - here's another fine detail the script offers, a staunch Catholic using insincere religion to excuse his adultery (while also putting down Patrick for his own "sins") - although the funeral itself unleashes some hidden emotions, both hilarious and somber. (Kirby confronts all six of his dad's skanky ex-wives, to wonderfully uncomfortable effect.)

For the next three days, the guys remember the good times, get drunk on bad wine, wonder aloud about pushing forty and where will their lives go next? We've seen this story before, but rarely with this sort of honest insight; the script handles the plot gimmicks of outrageous situations and coming-of-middle-age revelations with intelligence and emotional authenticity, allowing the formula to work in the characters' favor.

Each of the three main characters is notably complicated in a way that benefits the drama. Rhoads and Crye are unafraid to make their characters unlikable, knowing that we'll come around to their sides eventually. It's fun to watch these two interact, first with reluctance, then with reluctant closeness, all with Patrick stuck in the middle. There's a warmth to their nostalgia and a coldness to their modern problems, and you can't blame them for wanting to escape to the memories of the past. The film's black-and-white photography suggests a certain detachment, but that's not true at all, as "Happy Holidays" is close up and cozy, a lovely tale of friends and family and the uncertainty of now.

"Happy Holidays" is currently available to view online through various outlets, and while most movies benefit from the big screen, this method may work in the film's favor. It's a small, intimate piece that works with a closeness best obtained with computer and TV screens. Give it a download this holiday season.

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