Film Reviews

HAPPY HOUR

By • Apr 1st, 2004 •

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Released by O’Hara/Klein
Unrated / Running time: 94 min.

A CLASS ACT

Money isn’t everything. By an act of alchemy, director Mike Bencivenga has turned a low-budget indie into a golden experience. It boasts no major stars, no F/X to boggle your mind or marketing blitz to deaden your senses (or good judgment). But this small film — which has already garnered a slew of wins at various festivals — looms large in every other respect, and could well be this year’s sleeper.

Like LEAVING LAS VEGAS or DAYS OF WINE AND ROSES, this so very human drama of an alcoholic and his two closest friends is short on spectacle but long in emotional involvement. O r— to paraphrase the late President Kennedy (at a White House dinner honoring Nobel Prize winners) — HAPPY HOUR is one of the most extraordinary collection of talent ever gathered together onscreen, with the possible exception of when Nicolas Cage and Elisabeth Shue drank alone.

Plot:
She: Are you a writer? He: A writer with a drinking problem. She: That’s a cliché.
He: (reconsidering) No, I’m more a drinker with a writing problem.

He is Tulley (LaPaglia), in danger of losing his job editing ad copy, though years earlier, was in “The Best New York Stories of 1980.” He had promise. Now all he has is a hangover.
(Aside from drinking—straight from the bottle—he has an unfinished novel that’s been 17 years in the works.)

She is Natalie (Feeney), a succulent schoolteacher who hates kids, who he picks up during happy hour at their local bistro. Immediately bonding on booze and each other, they end up in the sack and into one another’s heart. It’s a true love match — but a 3-sided one, filled by Tulley’s closest friend and co-worker Levine (Eric Stoltz), a numbers-cruncher who likes to write. The trio becomes inseparable, and his soulmates give Tulley the needed devotion to support him through his darkest hours.

The Bad News: At first, I was cool to the NYC bar scene filled with smartass banter from overage Yuppies. (Who wants to eavesdrop on drunks?)

The Good News: Wrong. It doesn’t matter. The film, about 3 people who really matter to each other, grows on you. Within seconds, I was laughing, drawn into the naturalistic dialogue that continued through the last frame. Ditto by the ensuing realism of the acting — superlative on all counts. Though the storyline invariably is a downer, it never descends into the doldrums, with the chemistry among the leads truly energizing.

The sensitive, luminous performances by LaPaglia and Stoltz, both familiar yeoman character actors, should raise them to the next level of renown. Both have never been better. LaPaglia is, certainly, the film’s linchpin; and the ubiquitous Stoltz (who, since the late ‘70s, has appeared in over 100 films and TV roles) has stretched his acting muscles. But the big “find” here is the little-known Feeney, around for eons in mostly B films. With barely any change in wardrobe and devoid of makeup (her lines show; it doesn’t matter either), she comes across as a beautiful woman and authentically beautiful person.

To round out this happy hour (actually 94 minutes), the chemistry also extends to the comic relief provided by Sandrine Holt as Tulley’s gorgeous boss (and ex-longtime lover) who drips sex along with warnings about his job security. (He asks “What happened?” She responds “One of us sobered up.”); and Tom Sadeski as Scott, the oily, wily guy at the office who wants Tulley’s job — and aside from being Bonnie’s current paramour, will do anything else to get it.

Then there are the on-the-mark cameos:
Malachy McCourt (with Slavic accent thick as a bowl of borscht) as Tulley’s old writing professor. Embracing at a Strand book-signing, he asks “You were my most promising star; how did you get so old?” Tulley answers “Day by day”) and
Robert Vaughn, as Tulley Sr., a famed literary lion whose icy demeanor could flash-freeze a busload of beef. Though only onscreen briefly, his character’s unloving persona helps tie up the loose ends — answering the possible “whys” of his son’s behavior.

Finally, to helmer Bencivenga goes the crown for this jewel of a film (only his second feature). His tight, always-in-control direction and intense dialogue (with co-writer Richard Levine) between three people who really matter to each other, makes you feel you’re eavesdropping.

Bottom line: A poignant testament to love, and a beautiful ensemble piece. (I screened this twice — to see if it was as good as I’d first thought. It was.)
That said, all that’s left is for audiences to run—not walk—to your local art house, and gear up for a most rewarding cinematic interlude.


Awards:

• the 2004 Florida Film Festival Audience Award for Best Narrative Feature Film
•the 2004 PRISM Award for Best Festival Film.
•the 2004 PRISM Award for Best Actor in a Film Festival Film (LaPaglia)
•the 2004 Verona Schermi d’Amore Festival Award for Best Actor (LaPaglia)
•the 2004 Newport Beach Film Festival Award for Outstanding Achievement In Acting (LaPaglia)

HAPPY HOUR was also an Official Selection of
•the 2003 Austin Film Festival
•the 2003 Sidewalk Film Festival
•the 2003 Sonoma Valley Film Festival
•the 2003 AFI Film Festival
•the 2004 Cleveland International Film Festival.


Cast:
Anthony LaPaglia (Tulley);
Eric Stoltz (Levine);
Caroleen Feeney (Natalie);
Robert Vaughn (Tulley Sr.);
Sandrine Holt (Bonnie);
Tom Sadeski (Scott);
Mario Cantone (Geoffrey);
Malachy McCourt (Dr. Pitcoff);
Michael Mulheren (Kelly);
Miriam Sirota (Rachel);
Cate Smit (Publicist);
Sam Breslin Wright (Chris);
Randy Evans (Dave);
Michael Minutoli (Bruiser);
Sean Conroy (Doorman);
Larissa Thurston (Woman in Bar);
Michelle Maryk (Woman in Park);
All as himself: Jack Newfield, bob O’Brien, Pete Hamill, Steve Dunleavy.

Credits:
Director: Mike Bencivenga;
Story by Richard Lewis.
Screenplay: Richard Levine and Mike Bencivenga;
Producers: J. Todd Harris, Eric M. Klein, Kimberly Shane O’Hara
Exec. Producer: John Davis;
Co-Exec. Producer: Michael Roban;
Assoc. Producers: Joe Anderson, Aaron Waiton.
Dir. of Photography: Giselle Chamma;
Editors: Nina Kawasake, Robert F. Landau;
Prod. Design: Tema Levine;
Costume Design: Nancy Brous;
Original Music: Jeffrey M. Taylor.

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