Loose and Languid, by Jack Fleischer
Whatever Makes You Happy is a mumblecore-neo-kitchen-sink drama that feels like it’s a leftover from the mid 90’s. The story of twentysomethings juggling sexual partners, the story and characters start off small and then stays there, making the film feel like an extended exercise rather than a complete story.
Set in Boston, Anna is a well-organized grad student who hangs out with her brother’s girlfriend, and lives a vanilla existence. Alex is her brother’s long absent college buddy with a “bad boy” reputation and a band. After a chance encounter at a party, where Alex steals a kiss from Anna, they begin see each other is secret – behind the back of Anna’s roommate/boyfriend Kevin.
Absent comedic elements Whatever Makes You Happy comes across as a blandly dramatic version of Next Stop Wonderland. Unlike that small gem, here the audience is never gets deeply involved in the lives of these characters. We don’t hate Anna for cheating on what seems to be a loveless relationship, and Alex is never developed enough as a character to be perceived as either bad or good. It never feels like their actions hold any import, so there never seem to be hard consequences.
In the first hour of the movie there’s a lot of exposition. We are told through dialogue absent of metaphor, and numerous establishing scenes, that Anna is in a passionless relationship. Her boyfriend is a cold fish with the same depth as Prince Vallium in Spaceballs. Anna goes to school, and has a brother and an outgoing friend. Alex is in a band. He is single. He went to college with Anna’s brother, and Anna’s brother’s girlfriend doesn’t like him very much. This is pretty much it. I don’t know how long Anna has lived with her boyfriend, or why they are together. I don’t know what kind of music Alex plays, or what he did in college that makes a few select women wary of him. These characters are little more than meat puppets spouting exposition and moving across screen. When Anna finally cheats on her boyfriend, it’s in a manner that wouldn’t even rank inclusion on a daytime talk show.
The acting isn’t particularly compelling, but it’s not horrible. A few performances are wooden (which I can forgive in lo-fi cinema) – but the sin here is that every relationship lacks chemistry. I don’t believe that any of the couples portrayed are dating. This lack of interpersonal passion coupled with the fact that Anna isn’t even married, makes the infidelity seem less than significant. It’s less than surprising when a cold relationship of low-commitment falls apart.
Whatever Makes You Happy has one truly daunting failing: it moves at a snail’s pace. Perhaps this comes from flat writing. Maybe it’s the result of poor direction. Maybe clunky editing is to blame. With only two or three key scenes pinning these characters to this film, we’re left with lots of empty space. Shots linger, actors give dramatic pause, and there doesn’t seem to be a purpose to it all. Add in the occasionally curious camera set-ups and lots of low light, and this movie may put you to sleep.
Whatever Makes You Happy seems like an examination of fidelity, which broke down into a wordy essay about the lack of romance in modern relationships. What we’re left with is a movie about comfortable cohabitation; happiness has nothing to do with it.