After over a decade of living in happily married bliss, Tom (Joel McHale) and Janet (Kerry Bishé) are surprised to discover that their friends are resentful of their seemingly perfect relationship. The film Happily opens up with them at a party together, pretending to be strangers as part of a romantic role play where they’re hooking up for “the first time”. We later see them get in a small argument that is quickly resolved and, again, leads to a night of great sex. They’ve got it all, and their friends aren’t happy about it.
Things take a spiral when a mysterious stranger (Stephen Root) shows up at their doorstep with a surprising reveal that their relationship might be a little less perfect than everyone thought. Janet reacts in a surprising fashion, setting in motion the narrative push of Happily, the debut feature from writer/director BenDavid Grabinski. Wondering if this man’s arrival was actually a prank, Tom and Janet head out on a group vacation with the intention of investigating each of their friends in the hopes of discovering who was responsible.
This ensemble includes a litany of impressive comedic talent, with Paul Scheer, Charlyne Yi, Jon Daly, and Natalie Morales just some of the great actors playing characters who are now suspects for Tom and Janet’s investigation. While this mystery is the narrative catalyst of Happily, what Grabinski is more interested in is using that as a means to unearth these deep, dark secrets that exist within each of the couples on this vacation, and explore the very nature of how we interact with one another, both in terms of romantic relationships and friendships.
Shifting into its more universal themes ultimately makes that mysterious premise feel a tad undercooked, without much of a payoff, which is disappointing. The tradeoff, however, is that Grabinski ably mines these character dynamics to force the audience to reflect on the way that we compare ourselves to others, as these couples do with Tom and Janet’s marriage. They never stop to consider that their judgement, their distaste for Tom and Janet’s happy life is coming from resentment towards their own lives and relationships.
At the same time, seeing these people all locked in a house together brings up questions about how we choose who we spend our time with. All of these couples have been friends for so long, but why? Daly and Breckin Meyer in particular are both playing characters who seem like they loathe their friends, loathe their own existence, yet they continue the charade of coming out for the vacation and being around this whole group. You can walk away from Happily thinking about why you still hang out with that one friend from high school who you haven’t actually enjoyed spending time with for the last decade, and wonder if you’re just doing it out of habit at this point.
Outward reflections aren’t the only relationships that Grabinski is interested in exploring here, as he also spends plenty of time delving into Tom and Janet’s marriage itself, proposing the theory that this seemingly perfect life might not be as ideal as it first seemed to be. Bishé in particular shines in the ways that she subtly conveys her character’s looming insecurities about their marriage, and her growing distrust of her husband, despite still holding onto that love for him. Happily opens up these doors to so many questions that anyone can relate to, and Grabinski never gives any easy answers.
The film is so jam-packed with ideas that it feels a little unsatisfying when all is said and done. There’s a lot of potential here, with plenty to dissect, and it almost feels as if Grabinski is putting too much into one feature, or at least not allowing enough time to fully dig into everything as wholly as you would want him to. Nevertheless, he shows a lot of promise for a debut filmmaker. While seeing all of these comedic actors on a cast list might give you the impression of this being a straightforward comedy, the filmmaker rides this fascinating line between comedy, thriller, and domestic drama that makes it impossible to categorize. That can be frustrating at times, yet it allows you the rare experience of seeing something that feels totally new and distinct. This might not be a perfect first feature, but it certainly makes one eager to see what Grabinski is going to come up with moving forward.
Happily will be available in theaters, on digital, and on demand on March 19th, 2021