Welcome to Happiness full movie review - One's Own Outlook Will Color 'Welcome to Happiness
I didn't attend the Phoenix Film Festival screening of Welcome to Happiness for the subject matter. I went because the cast includes two of my favorite actresses: Olivia Thirlby (The Wackness, Juno and The Wedding Ringer) and Molly C. Quinn, the daughter on ABC's Castle.
Then there was the reference in the synopsis to "a mysterious door in his closet that only allows certain people to enter." For me, that evoked images of Being John Malkovich.
So I really didn't see it coming when the film turned out to address a question with which I've struggled most of my life: Just what is "happiness"? See, I'm one of those folks who has trouble simply "being" in the moment; there always seems to be something more out there. It's an inability to be confident and satisfied in myself, my accomplishments, my health, my relationships and whatnot.
A Curious Setting
That doesn't seem to be a problem, at least initially, for Woody Ward (Kyle Gallner from American Sniper), who lives in an unusual apartment the walls of which are adorned with curious murals.
Residence in the unit comes with a responsibility. Periodically, the silence is shattered by the clattering of a 1980s-era printer in the hallway ? followed quickly by a stranger knocking on the door. Woody must verify the visitor's identity with information from the printer, guide him or her into the closet with the mysterious door and then leave the person to await admittance. Like the old Black Flag Roach Motel ads, guests check in but they don't check out.
Woody has lived there for years and hasn't seemed to mind the ritual, but there are signs that it's starting to wear thin:
-- He tells one guest, Leah, that not everybody (i.e., him) gets to pass through the door. -- Following a meet cute with neighbor Trudy (Thirlby) at the mailbox, their initial date is interrupted by the printer and someone at the door. -- He encounters Leah on the street ? the first time he's ever seen someone again after he or she went through the door ? and she intimates that whatever is on the other side offers the chance to right some wrong in the past. This particularly rankles Woody, whose parents were killed by a drunk driver.
Despite the awkward ending to the first date, Trudy is smitten by Woody's ingenuousness and the fact that he makes his living writing children's books. But it isn't happily ever after; Woody has writer's block and is under pressure from his agent, Priscilla (Paget Brewster from TV's Criminal Minds).
Then there is his growing resentment that he somehow isn't worthy of passing through the door. It comes to a head when Woody tells Trudy and her friend Farrah (Chauntal Lewis) about the door. Determined to prove it in the face of their skepticism, he badgers Farrah, who had lost a hand in a car accident, into trying the door in the hope she might be able to alter the past. But as we've seen with Woody himself, he doesn't get to decide who passes through. His misbegotten effort simply alienates Trudy and Farrah.
The Other Side
Unlike Woody, the audience gets to see life on both sides of the door.
Pulling the strings on the other, Oz-like side is the eccentric Proctor (Keegan-Michael Key of Key and Peele), helped by his quirky assistant, Lillian (Quinn). This side is supposed to be "happiness," a surreal setting of brightly colored buildings amid landscape that looks a lot like the Arizona desert. From there, Proctor and Lillian engineer a subplot in which they manipulate two characters with a dark connection from the past.
The only character who acts in both worlds is Woody's landlord, Moses (Nick Offerman from Parks and Recreation), who is privy to the apartment's special qualities. Moses' presence is measured and calming, compared with Offerman's comedy roles.
Quinn, too, plays against her TV persona. Colorful and quirky, yet almost hypnotic in her movements, Lillian is the opposite of Alexis on Castle.
Welcome to Happiness offers an interesting take on what it means to be worthy. It also tries to illustrate happiness, but falls short. Behind all of the color and kookiness are the usual clichés about the grass always being greener on the other side and appreciating your life as it is.
That said, the film's approach to those issues is original and creative ? which works because the acting is superb. The characters of Woody, Lillian and Proctor (as well as the two portrayed in the subplot by Josh Brener of TV's Silicon Valley and Brendan Sexton III of The Killing) are richly drawn, and the ways in which the actors bring them to life a key to capturing the audience. It wasn't surprising, then, that Welcome to Happiness won Phoenix Film Festival's award for Best Acting Ensemble.
What doesn't work is a sharp New Age, Kumbayba-type turn near the end. What to that point is a nuanced portrayal of individuals runs smack into a big group of people embracing in unison some sort of common belief in solidarity against the real world ? represented moments earlier by Trudy and Priscilla, clad in black, trying to yank Woody back to his reality. It just doesn't fit.
Still, Welcome to Happiness offers many of the qualities integral to an independent film that seeks to avoid the tropes of the genre.
Stu Robinson practices writing, editing, media relations and social media through his business, Phoenix-based Lightbulb Communications.