Happy Times Indeed
- By Jim Hicks
On this day, March 11th (which I predict by this time next year will be recognized as an International Day of Remembrance and Mourning), I’ve decided to write something entirely inappropriate, because frankly, it’s just what the doctor ordered. Those of us still lucky enough to be in the world have realized that much has changed over the last year—and that much more must be changed. Due to the global pandemic, current estimates are that we’ve lost 2.6 million souls in a single year, with over a half million here in the US alone. At some point, no doubt, statisticians will calculate the excess deaths of this year compared to years past, and we’ll likely find that the toll has been much greater than we currently believe.
Faced with this grim reality, and after more than a year of forced isolation, I have a recommendation for you all. It might not cure what ails you, but it will make you feel much much better, at least for a few hours. What you need, frankly, is to see a good movie. And not just any movie—what you need is a sublime generic mix, something potent than goes down like water, something somewhere between slapstick and splatter. What you need is Michael Mayer’s new movie, Happy Times. The film’s distributor, Artsploitation, triangulates its story rather neatly: “Think Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf meets The Texas Chainsaw Massacre.”
Before I tell you more, I have to confess. I was actually dreading this film. I knew I had to watch it, since I know and have worked with the director—plus two of the movie’s producers are friends. Thing is, this just isn’t the sort of thing I enjoy. I’m not a big fan of horror movies, I don’t generally like zany comedies, and the idea of blending them together struck me as a recipe for disaster—and I don’t like disaster movies either. So, if I ended up hating it, what would I tell my friends? You can’t lie to your friends.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m not a culture snob. I have nothing against physical comedy, or even filmic violence, really (the latter generally strikes me as second cousin to dance movies, or musicals). I love Chaplin and Keaton, but maybe that’s due to historical distance. I grew up in the Midwest, during the heyday of Jerry Lewis and Lucille Ball, and both of them make me cringe. Ivan Illich argues that such reactions are a form of social hygiene: what we really can’t stomach is the possibility that someone might think those people are like us. Happy Times, on the other hand, builds its story on a post-Shabbat dinner party of Israeli expats in L.A. Hard to get farther away from whitebread, milquetoast, heartland suburbia than that, I suppose…
So far, in fact, every review I’ve seen of the film does focus on its cultural context. Surely taking the piss out of Israeli stereotypes must be part of its magic, yet I actually think there’s something here for everyone, particularly today. No doubt digging deeply into one’s own story—the director, Michael Mayer, is himself an expat Israeli, living in L.A.—is the quickest way to connect with everyone else.
One twist Happy Times does pull off beautifully is borrowed from classic detective fiction: this particular dinner party throws together social groups—a tech exec, a real estate developer, a struggling actor—that our segmented society rarely finds in the same room, or even in the same digital chatroom. As the Forward reviewer notes, back in Israel such people “live in different neighborhoods, different cities even. They send their children to different schools.” And all the real tension, it turns out, turns on the different life choices these people have made, beginning, in fact, with perhaps the most fundamental of all—whether to have children. If that’s an Israeli thing, I suspect others will understand.
In fact, if you look closely, each trigger moment where the film escalates in both mayhem and creativity has to with some such threat—a viral photo that damages an actor’s career, a development project done in secret, without the guy who proposed it, the potential infidelity of a wife, the actual infidelity of a husband—threats to the choices that define the lives and identities of the characters we meet. Each of these attacks is done in secret, and each is perceived as the existential equivalent of a nuclear option. With this crowd at least, there is zero separation between what they do and who they are: any threat to anyone, quite literally, is grounds for murder of the other.
Again, don’t get me wrong, it’s not like I didn’t notice. The film does tell us, time and again, that this is just how Israelis are: that they bullshit about everything, that they’re not fighting, that’s just how they talk, that they have no boundaries, that they never back down. And there must be some reason why the two most hilarious scenes in the entire film—a stand-off with clueless cops in the entryway and a tense exchange with leftovers in one hand and a crossbow in the other—are both cross-cultural encounters. At one point, the single important, non-Israeli person in the film, a Black French actress and girlfriend of the film’s central character, tells her beau, But they’re all crazy! And you’re as crazy as they are! True that. But these days, I’m no longer so sure whom her comment doesn’t describe. If half a million people can be sacrificed because pandemics are bad press, there really are no boundaries left, and no point where policy mistakes will be acknowledged. Escalation is the only option left.
What Happy Times shows us, in other words, takes Gandhi’s famous comment about the endgame of “an eye for an eye” to its inevitable and apocalyptic conclusion. In a year where we’ve all been cooped up for far too long, after hours and hours of looking out onto the lives, ideas, and choices of others, in a rage of intolerance and disbelief, we can all easily imagine the bloodletting that would happen if we finally had the chance to get it all out, if we gave those mothers what they really deserve.
And so, again, I must insist, this film is indeed precisely what the doctor ordered. After all, bloodletting was for centuries one of the most common—and most effective—of medical procedures. And who knows, with few hours of Happy Times distributed at least as widely as the various COVID vaccines, we might just keep the actual apocalypse away, at least for a few more hours.
And if not, what the hell. At least we’ll die laughing.
Jim Hicks is Executive Editor of the Massachusetts Review.