Director: Jared Stern
Screenplay: Jared Stern
Starring: Noël Wells, Ben Schwartz, Rahul Kohli, Kristin Bauer van Straten
Runtime: 78 Minutes
The further we get into the 21st century, the more often we’re going to see films in the romantic comedy genre approaching the complacency of its own narrative trappings and expectations with fresh contemporary eyes. That being that the audience for the romantic comedy has not only shifted to the perspectives of the millennials who now fill the required niches of “30-somethings”, and despite the easy clichés of falling back on jokes at the expense of social media, technology, fashion trends and other aesthetic formalities of the modern young adult experience, there will need to be narratives to satisfy such disparity between the decades since the genres last big boom periods.
So even if Happy Anniversary isn’t quite there as far as placing on screen some sort of definitive representation of the new form, it’s a notable step in that direction that looks upon its subjects as difficult and imperfect but most significantly human.
Mollie (Noël Wells) and Sam (Ben Schwartz) are a seemingly content couple who face a more disruptive than usual argument when Mollie bluntly announces on the morning of their three-year anniversary that she’s “not happy”. What follows as the day plays out is a succession of conversations with family and friends, day-to-day life going on and a resolution that might lie a little neater than it needs to but leaves some room open for interpretation as to their next stages if you're looking for it.
This decision that arises of whether to stay together or call it quits is a highly relatable juncture of any long-term relationship, and the way in which debut director uses the structure to flit back and forth at points to instances in their past for contrast shares the confidence of other films like it that present what happens after the happily ever after, and showing us the more conventional relationship business (arguments, jokes, routines and honest declarations) as the vignettes and ‘moments’ of fleeting sadness and joy that they really represent.
If there’s a weakness in laying it out in this fashion, it’s that the two characters end up coming across as overly ‘quirky’ in place of some more conventionally intimate showcases. It falls back on well-worn tropes such as the ‘making characters for strangers’ game, but it’s the little details such as their gambled race to their gated driveway that fill it with more intimacy.
What helps are the performances from Wells and Schwartz. Particularly Wells, who’s Mollie is most of the time seen as a bullying manipulator and twister of words, and even though some of both of their backstories could be further fleshed out her work here at making a complicated and occasionally unsympathetic character likeable is as great as it was in Mr Roosevelt.
The supporting cast from newcomer Rahul Kohli is a delight or irks and a malicious takedown of ‘bro’ culture, while veterans Kristin Bauer van Straten, Annie Potts and Joe Pantoliano make the most of their mostly thankless but well-pitched roles.
Happy Anniversary does a surprisingly solid job at showing how even the strongest looking relationships on the surface can harbour genuine issues that can go left unresolved. The tiny things that build but as patience’s wane and mutual respect fall foul of heated name-calling and the fantasies of paths not taken. It won't shatter expectations by the end, but it does give us more of an idea of what the genre might be might be offering from this point forward.