Tonight in Seattle:  

Happy Endings

"Nothing says 'I love you' like blackmail."

The latest by Don Roos begins with a crash, and that's not the only thing that brings to mind, um, Crash: both are challenging and dense vignette-form films that deftly weave together complex stories of multiple L.A.-dwelling characters. Both are products of sure-handed screenwriters-turned-directors who understand the value of great dialogue. Both feature top-notch performances by large casts that mix bigger-name stars with B-listers (and seeming has-beens). Both rank among the best films of 2005.

The big difference is thematic: Happy Endings replaces Crash's racial dissension with the ugly (but often hilarious) aspects of sexuality. And both life issues, the films seem to remind us, are bigger than we think they are.

I'll try for a brief plot overview. Lisa Kudrow's character (the one involved in the aforementioned crash) is an abortion-clinic counselor being blackmailed by a filmmaker (Jesse Bradford) who claims to know the son that she gave up for adoption many years ago; he won't introduce them unless she agrees to participate in an exploitative documentary about the reunion. Her immigrant massage-therapist boyfriend Bobby Cannavale, well-known for the 'happy endings' he provides to his wealthy female clients, convinces the filmmaker to turn the cameras on him instead. Lisa's baby-daddy also happens to be her stepbrother (Steve Coogan), who turned out to be gay-as-a-goose and whose current boyfriend (David Sutcliffe) may or may not be the biological father of lesbionic Laura Dern's baby. Jason Ritter has a sick secret crush on Steve, but is constantly trying to convince his wealthy pop (Tom Arnold) that he isn't a homo; smooth gold-digging chanteuse Maggie Gyllenhaal (who actually sings, and quite well) plays beard for Jason, then seduces his dad... and soon winds up in Lisa's office at the clinic.

Yeah, a lot goes down, and any centering force to be had lies in a career-best performance by Lisa Kudrow, who shines in her brusque, tightly-wound, decidedly Phoebe-free role. (Huge kudos to her for digging out of the Friends baggage and taking on projects like this and under-appreciated The Comeback; she's obviously set for life, and it's a thrill that she's finding good parts and refusing to easily rest on those Central Perk greenbacks.) Speaking of TV favorites, it's also great to see Ritter and Amanda Foreman (who I've loved since Felicity) on the big screen.

Director Roos has pulled off quite a balancing act with this film, the best in a steadily growing cache which also includes 1998's mean and insolently hysterical The Opposite of Sex (which you should totally see) and 2000's heavily-Miramaxed Benneth relic Bounce (completely skippable). It isn't quite perfect, though: just as Crash's multitude of story coincidences requires a small leap of faith, so do a couple of Happy Endings' expository setups. But any satisfying conclusion is relative, of course, and may be all the sweeter when accompanied by the slightest suspension of disbelief.

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