Monday, May 3, 2010

HAPPINESS RUNS -- for its life -- in Adam Sherman's based-on-truth tale

Maybe it has to do with TrustMovies' advancing years, but he does wonder if there can be anyone out there past the age of, say, 35 who does not realize that would-be Utopian communities -- particularly those run by out-of-touch, elderly hippies with drug-and-other problems -- are not the best places to raise healthy children.  Really?  You had no idea?  Then do see HAPPINESS RUNS and revel in its revelations.

So much sex and sin -- and so soon, too! -- are packed into this 88-minute movie that it's little wonder characterization comes up a bit short. You may also begin to miss getting to know a character or two who possesses even a marginally conventional life.  Teenage sex, group sex, heavy-duty drugs, the commune slut: they're all here but appear to offer so little enjoyment that you begin to wonder why sex 'n sin have that don't-miss-'em reputation.

There is also a scene of cow torching -- cow torching?! -- (Yes: and those are the flames, at left) which just might be the event that turns the corner for this woeful little movie made by a fellow named Adam Sherman (shown above) and which is reportedly based upon his own life growing up in just such a commune.  I don't envy Mr. Sherman his experience, and I wished I had liked his movie better.  But it really has nothing to say, save the utterly expected, and there are no full-bodied characters on view, either -- just a catalog of unhealthy quirks parading about in the skin of some relatively attractive actors.

I suspect that the writer/director is simply too close to his material to achieve much objectivity.  He tries to blend fantasy with reality, and his camera does capture the dry-yet-green, firetrap-laden landscape you find in the hills (shown below) that rise from the Pacific Ocean, where I assume the film was shot.  Much of  the dialog has the sound of on-the-spot improvisation -- which only adds to the weird feeling of off-the-cuff DIY film-making.

The director also gifts us with that de rigeuer shot of fast-moving clouds.  What is this for, I must ask?  The first time (or twenty) that I saw this kind of shot, a decade or more ago, it seemed new and interesting.  Now it's standard and boring.  But what it is meant to suggest?  Is it the new-fangled way to showing us time passing -- as did those 1940s and 50s shots of calendar pages turning in the breeze?  Or does it simply remain a now-standard trope that shows us that the director and his cinematographer know how to be not-quite au courant?  Please, somebody, post a comment and explain to me the significance of the fast-moving clouds shot.

While I believe that growing up in such a sad and desolate place (as this commune apparently was) has resulted in what we see, it can't have always been like that.  Communes sprang up in part as a reaction to the continued conformity of post-WWII America, and, from the documentaries and narratives we've already seen, these places seemed to offer something new and vital, for awhile at least.  Because Sherman shows us the end of the line, without a hint of anything good in either his parents or the place itself, he manages to alienate his viewers very nearly as much as he himself has been alienated.

The cast is as good as this highly circumspect material permits. Among the youngsters, only Shiloh Fernandez (from the exquisitely nasty DeadGirl) was recognizable to me.  But, according to the IMDB, he wasn't even in this movie. (Maybe he's decided to leave it off his resume?)  The saddest part of Happiness Runs comes from seeing once-capable actors -- Rutger Hauer (above, center, the commune's elderly-but-still-randy "spiritual" leader) and Andie MacDowell (as our hero's mom, below, who evidently supplies financing for the commune) -- wasted in utterly thankless roles.  When, toward the film's conclusion, Ms MacDowell tosses her cookies, this seems the only logical reaction to all that has gone before.

Happiness Runs, from Strand Releasing, opens this Friday, May 7, in New York City at the Quad Cinema and then in Los Angeles on May 14 at the Laemmle Sunset 5.


A.C said...

It is obvious that the person that wrote this review has anger issues and no critical thinking skills. Try some meditation pal.

James van Maanen, said...

Thanks, A.C. I did try that meditation, but, gosh, the movie still sucks. Happiness Runs didn't make me angry, by the way, just sad -- for the several opportunities that it wasted.

Anonymous said...

We just watched this movie, and I did grow-up in the counter-culture in the era that this is supposedly set in.

It rang very untrue to life and seemed more like a typical "drugs are bad; parents are bad and so kids do drugs" films of which there are way too many. I found it to be very moralistic and didactic. The parents in the movie would never have used the word 'druggie' our parents did more drugs than we did and were into altered states of consciousness---that is why they were there in the first place.

Also some of the details are way too close to David's of, I was hoping to see a movie that truly reflected what the kids of the hippies experienced, our lives were not easy, to this day I struggle with some of the experiences and relating to others with more conventional parents.

I found the drug use esp. to be so inaccurate it was like a movie about drugs by someone who never did them. I actually feel insulted by the movie.


James van Maanen, said...

Thanks for the comment, J.C. I did not grow up, as you did, in the counter-cultural era, as I was already a young adult by then. But the movie, as you can tell from my review, struck me as false as it did you.

I hope your own particular struggle grows easier, or at least more rewarding, eventually. I think kids from hippie parents really do struggle for the "normality" that often comes more easily to kids of mainstream parents. But you probably are the beneficiary of at least a few good things that you would not possess, had you come from "normal" parents. Just guessing. None of us can have everything, and all parents make mistakes. And then their kids try to avoid those particular mistakes, while making new ones of their own. Life -- and parenting -- are tricky, no? (And I say that as a parent of a wonderful daughter who is trying to avoid, with her own children, some of the mistakes I made with her.)

Isabella Fiske McFarlin said...

PLEASE do not believe everything you see in this movie. The director was raised in a community in Vermont in which children were loved and honored; no one is perfect, but we tried to keep them happy by playing with them in four hour shifts. And their parents were generally very loving and devoted too. It was absolutely forbidden to harm animals. NO COWS WERE EVER TORCHED. Please believe me. We are still here, in a slightly different form, and the two rules on the place are NO HITTING KIDS and NO KILLING ANIMALS.
So please-- do not take it all seriously. Adam does have anger issues, and he may be right about some stuff but surely not about that.

Isabella Fiske McFarlin said...

This is not a true picture of the community in which Adam grew up. I wish he would make this more clear.
For a better picture of the place-- see the brief but more true to life Part III of Freedom and Unity, The Vermont Movie, which is just coming out now. Part III is about many issues including communes and communities. There is also a Wikipedia entry on Quarry Hill Creative Center. Please don't believe everything every p.o.'d kid creates. Adam is a good person, but he grew up with a lot of money which mo one else had-- except that which his mother shared with the community. Is that why he is angry?

James van Maanen said...

Thanks, Isabella, for both your comments. To set your mind at ease, I did not believe everything (or much of anything) I saw in this movie, as I think my review will substantiate. Perhaps my headline and the use of the phrase "based-on-truth" confuses the issue. (Headlines must fit into the two-to-three lines given them, so sometimes I choose words or phrases that may be not quite right.

In any case, I appreciate your taking the time to set me straight.