My Happy Ending attempts to tell a cancer story in a way that’s funny without sacrificing meaning. The task is not as impossible as it may sound. The Seth Rogen/Joseph Gordon-Levitt collaboration 50/50 and the Molly Shannon dramedy Other People pulled it off quite well. No such luck this time. Directors Tal Granit and Sharon Maymon, working from a screenplay by Rona Tamir that’s based on a play by Anat Gov, don’t evoke a lot of pathos, nor do they illicit much humor. From start to finish, the film feels strained and unconvincing.
Andie MacDowell stars as Julia, a well-known actress whose career is on the downswing. That’s the least of her problems, given that she’s got stage 4 cancer. When she arrives for her first chemotherapy treatment, it comes as a shock to discover that the procedure won’t be in a private room, but rather a communal space shared by three other women – Judy (Miriam Margolyes), Mikey (Sally Phillips), and Imaan (Rakhee Thakrar). While harried manager Nancy (Tasmin Grieg) tries to find an isolated room, Julia tentatively joins the others in an exercise wherein they hold hands, close their eyes, and fantasize about being in one of their personal relaxation places. The ladies do this regularly, when they aren’t swooning over the handsome doctor (Tom Cullen) taking care of them, that is.
The main drama in My Happy Ending comes from wondering if Julia will accept her treatment or not. That could work, except that the character is extremely unlikeable. She’s shallow and narcissistic. Yes, some of that comes from fear. Nevertheless, despite a decent performance from MacDowell, caring about her is tough. There isn’t a single moment where she acknowledges gratitude for being able to receive medical care. All she does is whine and complain. One or two basic lines of dialogue would have gone a long way toward softening her just enough to earn more of our empathy. The movie’s finale is intended to be a revelation for her, yet it rings hollow because of her predominantly negative attitude. It feels like the exact opposite of what it’s supposed to mean.
The fantasy scenes don’t work, either. They come off as cloying. Judy, for example, likes to create the fantasy that they’re in a jungle, looking for a super-rare type of frog. Mikey likes to imagine a dance party on a beach. How the women accomplish this – and how they all buy into it – isn’t explained in detail. It’s just a device, presumably to lighten the subject matter. Since that device isn’t funny, the sequences are merely an intrusion into the proper story, adding nothing while taking up precious time that could have been spent really digging into Julia’s mentality when faced with terminal illness.
That the film goes down so many wrong avenues is especially disappointing given there’s a nice cast here. All the actors are fine in their respective roles. I kept wanting to see them in a better picture. A few individual moments hint at what might have been, most notably one where Nancy breaks down, frustrated that Julia persists in being demanding, i.e. forcing her to be a manager rather than a much-needed friend at this critical juncture. In spots, you can see where the film skirts with being incisive, only to pull back in favor of doctor-lusting and frog-chasing.
And that wrap-up. Ouch. Where Julia’s path leads her had a perfect chance to say something valuable about medical care, personal health, and the ability of us all to take charge of our destinies. Instead, because My Happy Ending hasn’t taken the premise’s inherent themes with enough seriousness, we’re left to pity this woman rather than to admire her. That’s a huge letdown in a movie that sadly squanders its potential.
out of four
My Happy Ending is rated R for language and brief drug use. The running time is 1 hour and 29 minutes.