A few scenes into “Happy Hour,” I found myself frozen with fear. I dared not move lest, by doing so, the pain of watching it might become worse. It was a similar reaction to being gripped with intestinal cramps. The scenes in writer-director Mike Bencivenga and co-writer Richard Levine’s comic drama play like cogs in a mechanically driven story, one that bogs itself in sophomoric dialogue and in clichés that together recall the subgenre of the Suffering Alcoholic Writer—think “The Lost Weekend,” “Leaving Las Vegas,” etc. Unlike those predecessors, however, “Happy Hour” is strictly college-level compost, content with its mediocrity, if not wholly unaware of it. Bencivenga’s scenes all bear a simple setup-punchline structure—strewn with smarmy one-liners, thin character development and glib observation—not surprising considering his background in sketch comedy. Finally, it’s a shock that his and Levine’s script garnered enough attention to attract first-rate actors like Anthony LaPaglia.
LaPaglia plays Tulley, an over-the-hill Manhattan writer slumming as an advertising copy editor while cobbling together a novel—presumably his magnum opus. Tulley lives bitterly in the shadow of his condescending father—a famous author—and nocturnally drowns his miseries in booze alongside Levine (Eric Stoltz), a rooster-plumed dandy whom the hardboiled Tulley has inexplicably befriended and Natalie (Carolyn Feeney), a sassy schoolteacher who he hops into bed with the night they meet. The three strike up a barfly camaraderie and all’s well until Tulley finds out he’s dying—news that forces him to confront his creative and paternal demons. The movie hereupon assays a gamut of difficult themes, from love and mortality to alcoholism and friendship, but the results are decidedly inept: Tulley and Natalie’s romance feels about as sexy as a Bud Light commercial; LaPaglia is trapped into doing the boozy writer schtick by way of Philip Marlowe; Stoltz’s Levine is but an airy, asexual fop with no sense of purpose other than what the movie requires of him; and Feeney, with her misty-eyed earnestness, as Natalie, seems she’s in a whole other movie, something more akin to “Beaches” or a made-for-TV programmer. This confusion only underscores chronic and inherent problems in the material itself.
Never does “Happy Hour” give the feeling that it had to be made, that this story needed to be told. Steeped in a flat, visually stagy approach and clichés right down to its superfluous, Chandler-esque first-person narration and loungey soundtrack, “Happy Hour,” is at a loss for anything fresh, vital and authentic It aims ultimately for soul-stirring upliftment. But, its good intentions aside, Bencivenga’s movie ends up a bit like that maudlin, wisecracking drunk who crashes your favorite bar before he’s hauled away. Just hope he never comes back.
Directed by: Mike Bencivenga
Written by: Mike Bencivenga, Richard Levine
Cast: Anthony LaPaglia, Eric Stoltz, Caroleen Feeney, Robert Vaughn, Sandrine Holt, Mario Cantone