Parker Posey is a resourceful and lively actress who doesn't get nearly so much work in Hollywood as she deserves. But in Happy Tears, Posey lands a juicy starring role designed to showcase her eccentric energy, and she's so delighted by the opportunity that her happiness infuses the movie: She keeps the first half of Happy Tears aloft on a cloud of endearing tics and mannerisms.
Posey plays Jayne, a compulsive neurotic in profound denial who has convinced herself that people can't see right through her (she likes telling everyone she has quit cigarettes and alcohol, even though she clearly has done neither). Jayne lives in San Francisco and is married to a rich painter (Christian Camargo) whose mental problems have kept the couple from starting a family. So Jayne runs around the city happily spending her husband's money on such things as $2,000 boots.
Then her sister Laura (Demi Moore) calls, asking Jayne to come home to Pittsburgh to help care for their father Joe (Rip Torn), who suffers from a rare form of dementia. Posey and Moore are utterly believable as sisters who retained their bond from childhood even though their lives headed in radically different directions (Laura leads a modest middle-class life in Pittsburgh with her husband and kids). Each has something the other secretly envies: Laura would love Jayne's financial freedom, while Jayne desperately craves to be a mother.
The rapport between Posey and Moore is pleasurable and convincing - there is an unspoken complexity in the way they communicate with each other, as real siblings do - and Happy Tears initially seems to be a study of a disjointed but reunited family forced to regain its bearings. But writer-director Mitchell Lichtenstein (Teeth) has a different plan in mind, throwing in extraneous supporting characters such as Joe's girlfriend Shelly (a deglamorized Ellen Barkin), who claims to be a nurse but whose dirty teeth, restless manner and perpetually dirt-caked fingernails clearly mark her as a junkie.
The character isn't just unbelievable: Her presence also distracts Lichtenstein from the film's true center (Camargo, as Jayne's husband, fares even worse: His character is so underwritten, he's practically incomprehensible). Lichtenstein, son of the famed artist Roy Lichtenstein, also throws in occasional fantasy sequences (the lovers in a tryst float on giant jellyfish) that do the movie no favors. Flashbacks meant to be poignant, such as Jayne's memory of her late mother in a hospital bed, come off as pedestrian and unnecessary.
Happy Tears grows more conventional and less involving as it unfolds, eventually taken over by Jayne's hunt for a hidden treasure Joe is supposed to have buried in the backyard. And the requisite Big Secret From the Past that Laura reveals in an effort to get through Jayne's happy-go-lucky nonchalance ("Gee, it must be a happy place inside that brain of yours") lands with a deadening thud. On its way to a climax that ends every plot strand on an unrealistically upbeat and pat note, Happy Tears loses sight of what made the film so engrossing in the first place. And by film's end, Jayne remains as self-obsessed and neurotic as ever. She's just a lot happier now, having learned to accept she's just a teeny bit crazy.
Happy Tears opens Friday Jan. 19 at the Intracoastal in Miami and the Sunrise and Gateway in Fort Lauderdale.