The Totally Rad(nor) Show, by Matt Warren
Over the last few election cycles, there’s been something that news outlets like CNN and Fox have done that I find extremely interesting. I’m talking about that little EKG monitor thing that runs horizontally along the bottom of the screen during the presidential debates. It looks a little bit the readout of a polygraph machine, or maybe a Richter scale printout: jagged line rising or falling in direct response to popular opinion of the candidates’ talking points. The data is polled by giving a sample group of voters a small device not unlike the titular doomsday machine of Richard Kelly’s The Box. The machine consists of a single dial to be toggled back and forth to indicate either extreme approval, or extreme disapproval. Agree with what the candidates are saying? Turn the dial to the right. Don’t agree? Turn the dial left. It’s that simple.
Of course, this practice is completely soul crushing insofar as having a mature, informed voting public is concerned, since it only measures, and therefore legitimizes, voters’ most reactionary, knee-jerk impulses, as opposed to a more thoughtful consideration of what the candidates stand for as a whole. But goddamned if I don’t want one of these boxes so fucking bad, you guys. Everyone, everywhere all the time needs to know exactly how much I do or do not approve of whatever it is that’s happening at any given second. It’s really the only way the world can learn to properly cater to my every whim and preference. Got in and out of Jiffy Lube in less than 20 minutes? Turn the dial to the right—approved. El Pollo Loco fucks up my order at the drive-thru yet again? Turn the dial to the left—not approved. The doomsday machine would come in especially handy when watching the curious cinematic subgenre known as the hyperlink movie, up to and including the new Josh Radnor dramedy Happythankyoumoreplease.
“Hyperlink cinema” refers to the type of movie that involves a large ensemble of ostensibly unrelated characters in a specific geographic location whose fates gradually and inevitably become intertwined as the film unfolds. You know what I’m talking about. We’re talking your City of Gods, your Traffics, your Magnolias. We’re talking anything Alejandro González Iñárritu has ever done. The genre dates as far back as D.W. Griffith’s Intolerance, but only recently has the Internet term “hyperlink” been applied to this type of film. The author Alissa Quart coined the term in her review of Don Roos’ 2005 film Happy Endings, but I like it so much that I will personally award a $10 Robeks gift card to the first person to go into Wikipedia and change it so that I created it. Be sure to cite this review in the article, and send a screenshot to firstname.lastname@example.org. Seriously, do this. I’m not kidding.
I really like hyperlink movies. It could be that I respect the scope and ambition of these films, or it could just be that I have a shitty attention span. I even like the crappy ones, like Crash or the aforementioned Happy Endings. But the genre’s biggest drawback is the frequent inconsistency of quality, within these films, of the different subplots. This is where the doomsday machine comes in. Let’s say I’m watching Short Cuts and I want to let the ghost of Robert Altman know which parts of his film are pants, and which are mustard. The D-machine makes this easy. Tim Robbins’ wackadoo motorcycle cop? Hilarious. Turn the dial right. That crap with the jazz singer and her suicidal daughter? Horseshit. Turn the dial left. Tom Waits playing grabass with Lily Tomlin? Delightful. Turn the dial right. Lyle Lovett as a psychotic, OG cake boss? Total chud. Turn it left. You get the idea.
Maybe Happythankyoumoreplease isn’t much of a hyperlink movie. After all, there are really only three stories at work, and the film’s characters aren’t even complete strangers. But it still feels hyperlink-y. Screen time is parceled out evenly to each subplot, and the setting feels appropriately hermetic.
The setting, in this case, is a bright, sitcom-y New York City, photographed by writer/director/star Josh Radnor with the sort of visual indifference typical of actor-directors. Radnor (best known as How I Met Your Mother’s Ted) plays Sam, an unlucky-in-love writer tired of one-night stands and looking for a more meaningful relationship with Kate Mara’s small-town-girl-turned-big-city-lounge-singer, Mississippi. And yes, that’s the character’s actual name. We can only assume that poor Mississippi’s life has been one long manic pixie meet-cute (which, what the hell: ten more dollars in Robeks cards to anyone who credits me with “manic pixie dream girl.” Same rules as above.)
Sam’s life is complicated when he accidentally ends up playing Mr. Drummond to Rasheem (Michael Algieri), a young African-American foster child who follows him home from the subway. Elsewhere, Sam’s best friend Annie (Malin Åkerman), a spunky young woman suffering from alopecia, struggles to live a hairless life in a hirsute world, politely fending off the romantic advances of feckless coworker Sam #2, played by Tony Hale. Also in play: Sam’s beloved cousin Mary Catherine (Zoe Kazan) and boyfriend Charlie (Pablo Schreiber) debate the merits of moving to Los Angeles, and whether or not they could handle a long-distance relationship.
Based on the above, maybe it sounds like I don’t like the film all that much. Not true. I thought it was okay. I certainly liked it a fuck of a lot more than aesthetically similar titles such as Garden State and 500 Days of Summer, both of which filled me with the overwhelming desire to punch through walls and karate-chop baby strollers.
Some of Radnor’s dialogue is, in fact, pretty excellent. I saw the film at Sundance over a year ago, and I can still recall in vivid detail many of the film’s best conversations. Hale’s last-ditch appeal for Åkerman’s heart is actually one of the more touching movie monologues of recent memory. Much of this is due to Hale’s crackerjack performance, and the performances elsewhere are similarly good, not including Radnor himself. There’s also a conversation in a bar between Sam and Charlie late in the film that echoes, with eerie similarity, something I’ve thought to myself many, many times. But the Radnor-Mara romance is the standard rom-com pap at its most contrived, and while the stuff with the kid is certainly less annoying than it could be, it’s still a little too cute for it’s own good (not to mention the fact that this section of film is little more than a biracial indie film remake of Adam Sandler’s Big Daddy.)
So enter the D-machine. Happy’s crisp pacing and editing? Turn the dial right. Mara and Radnor’s vacuous, faux-witty rapport? Turn the dial left. Åkerman, Hale, Kazan, and Screiber? Starboard. Bland visual palate? Port. Soundtrack? A destra. Dumbass ending? A sinistra. Basically, you could do worse than this film, but you could also do a lot better.
Ending these articles is always the hardest part, and I keep wishing I’d be given some sort of sign to indicate that I’d reached the end of my journey. Say, a biblical frog downpour, or an uncharacteristic snowfall, or a life-altering car crash seen from multiple perspectives. Or maybe Chris Penn should just come back to life and smash my face in with a rock. Actually, I like that last option the best. Turn the dial right.