Synopsis: A seemingly friendly dinner party erupts into a night of violence and terror at a lush Hollywood estate.
Stars: Liraz Chamami, Michael Aloni, Iris Bahr, Alon Pdut, Stéfi Celma, Ido Mor, Guy Adler, Shani Atias, Daniel Lavid, Mike Burstyn
Director: Michael Mayer
Running Length: 93 minutes
TMMM Score: (6/10)
Review: Raise your hand (go ahead, I can see you!) if you’ve been to a bad dinner party before. You have? Me too! It’s not fun. Or sometimes it is. It’s all in how you look at it. There are some situations where the perfect confluence of events can happen that make what should be a great evening into a real struggle and you can either feed into it by making it worse or find a way to turn it all around. I was throwing a dinner party for my friends once and an hour before they came over, I dropped a marble tabletop on my feet, breaking both of my big toes…BOTH of them. The food was in the oven and the wine was ready to go. Did I cancel? No…you press on. And you also have your friends who are medical professionals tend to your toes before they can eat!
If only the guests at Yossi and Sigal’s Shabbat dinner could have had that positive outlook at well, maybe the events that transpire in Happy Times wouldn’t have been quite so bloody. I tend to gravitate toward movies that begin one way and then find a switch to flip and pivot toward another goal entirely. That’s what happens here, and I think a stronger, more entertaining film is the result. A rather surprising dark comedy that eventually erupts into an all-out bloodbath before your very eyes, Happy Times is writer/director Michael Mayer’s twisted take on the unraveling of a posh Brentwood gathering.
Israeli power couple Sigal (Liraz Chamami) and Yossi (Ido Mor) have invited their friends over, including Sigal’s cousin Michael (Michael Aloni) and his girlfriend Aliyah (Stéfi Celma), both aspiring actors. Outspoken Michael is determined to not let any of his cousin’s friends needle him but Sigal is hoping Aliyah can keep him under control or at least out of the way of Maor (Daniel Lavid) who likes to pick at him. Also in the mix, among others, are stoic Avener (Alon Pdut) and his wife Hila (Iris Bahr), another close friend of Sigal’s. Together they await the arrival of the Rabbi (Mike Burstyn) later in the evening.
A rocky start to the night over cocktails leads to an even worse main course and pretty soon uncovers the lynchpin that seals the deal on where the night is headed: an explicit text sent to everyone in the address book of one of the party guests. Once discovered, it’s too late to prevent the repercussions…which are brutal and gory. With dialogue in English, Hebrew and Spanish, audiences are kept distinctly on their toes because no one is entirely safe as you’ll quickly come to see. Though it gets to be wildly uneven as it goes along with characters suddenly changing loyalties for no reason and at times overdoes it in the vile arena, I found myself largely engaged for the brisk 90-minute run-time. It’s messy and may require some clean-up in your headspace after, but for the time commitment required it’s rather fun.
Giving the movie an extra bit of zip is an pleasant group of lively performances from the cast, starting with Chamami as the hostess that quickly loses her grasp on the events of the evening. What begins as a good-natured attempt at gathering with friends and family (albeit once laced with passive aggressive barbs) devolves rather impressively into grotesqueries and it’s amusing to watch Chamami first try to keep it all together before herself giving over to the ruckus being raised. Aloni is also fun as a guy that’s most likely a big a-hole but might just be the only one you can possibly root for if you line him up against the other males in the room. There’s a great scene for Bahr as she fends off two police officers that stop by asking questions and Burstyn is terrifically arch as the starving rabbi who isn’t about to leave without being fully fed by his hosts.
My first impression of Happy Times at its conclusion was mostly ambivalent. It was late and I felt like it was another home-made feature shot over a weekend or two at a nice Hollywood home starring an above average cast of actors. Yet I’ll admit portions of the film and the performances have stuck with me over the weeks and I’ve come around to liking it more, which wound up raising my score a little bit. It’s still a rough film in places but based on the staying power and how much I liked this cast it would be one I’d keep in my back pocket as a suggestion to anyone that likes their horror with a little laugh. Keep an eye out for this one and do give it consideration.