By Elias Savada.
There is plenty of dark humor to be found in this Israeli-American hybrid from Haifa-born and Los Angeles-based director Michael Mayer…[a] horror excursion into impolite Los Angeles manners….”
Don’t let the title fool you. What looks like happiness on the surface ain’t what’s underneath. Nowhere. No how. But there is plenty of dark humor to be found in this Israeli-American hybrid from Haifa-born and Los Angeles-based director Michael Mayer, his second feature after 2012’s gay Palestinian-Israeli drama Out of the Dark. Happy Times is a bilingual (Hebrew-English, with English subtitles) horror excursion into the impolite Los Angeles manners that revolves around an end-of-the-Jewish Sabbath (quick translation: Saturday night) dinner in the posh, six-million-dollar home of Israeli ex-pats Sigal (Liraz Chamami), a self-proclaimed artist of sorts, and her burly husband and gun enthusiast Yossi (Ido Mor). They welcome other Middle East transplants including Ilan (Guy Adler) and Noya (Shani Atias). Sigal’s friend Hila (Iris Bahr) also joins the celebration along with her significant other, Avner (Alon Pdut), an ex-militiaman with a touch of undocumented PTSD. The men all seem to be wheeler dealers, looking for a score in whatever any of them brings to the table. Or hides underneath it. Sigal’s self-obsessed “celebrity” actor cousin Michael (Michael Aloni) arrives with his Black actress girlfriend Aliyah (Stéfi Celma), with a warning that Israelis in general, “bullshit in life for a living.”
There’s also the single cute guy, Maor (Daniel Lavid), who works with Sigal and has his eyes firmly focused on her derriere. She accepts his admiration, up to a point. And then reconsiders. Oops.
The script by Mayer and Guy Ayal (also the film’s composer and a co-producer) manages to deftly rise, with a nice comic flair, above its obvious Agatha Christie mystery roots, especially after the film’s first 20 minutes, during which the snobbery of the rich and not-remotely-famous toss sly, rude barbs at one another as the evening takes shape with drinking, drinking some more (one pre-mixed “fuck you up” concoction is disguised as water), smoking some pot, and otherwise loosening up their darker inhibitions. The guests’ coarse, oversized egos rev up as they gather around the elegant dining room table, where small talk and condescension are being served.
With scumbags, backstabbers, assholes, and delusionists like these, who needs friends? What you do need is a working toilet and the main floor bathroom seems to have some chronic issues. Yossi acknowledges the plumbing problem, framing it as a political issue — “a six-million-dollar home with Gaza plumbing.” Conversations about the Israeli government, thankfully, are kept to a minimum, allowing the pratfalls to escalate into a slew of personal embarrassments and worse.
As the film begins its slide into comic darkness – a spilled glass of wine is the simple catalyst – tensions escalate with every subsequent misunderstanding. Some of the evening’s graphic tragedies are accidental, but all the bloodletting offers an abundance of comedy. Violence in the mostly cartoonish fashion, ensues.
The characters turn on one another, some aware of the tormentor, others not. Michael, the first to lose consciousness, is pissed at the unwanted publicity that one of the guest’s privates have caused him in a quick dissemination of dick pics to all in his address book. He demands the male guests drop trou in order to identify the perp.
By the film’s half-way mark, all bloody hell has broken loose and these “friends” are abandoning each other at the drop of a shekel. Weapons run the gamut from a rifle to a large ceremonial shofar, to a decorative crossbow, to a kiln, and a garbage disposal. There’s a nice feeling of gleeful ineptitude amongst the cast as they maneuver each vengeful moment.
Local cops that knock on the door are too lame to investigate if the gunshots reported in the neighborhood are the result of the ongoing bickering, even after they spot blood on Sigal’s wrist. Hila, a lapsed lawyer in favor of being a housewife, argues a cockamamie notion of anti-Semitism at the police, and thus allows those guilty – and still alive – inside the mansion to savor a few more moments of freedom.
As an afterthought, Rabbi Mati (Mike Burstyn) is a latecomer (stuck in traffic on the 405) who begs a meal and a blank check for the school he runs, where the kids of several of the couples are students.
You may not remember the players’ names and connections as they get introduced during the film’s fast-paced start, but the rest of Happy Times is quite a dark hoot, as the mayhem heightens in glorious intensity. The expected bits of gallows humor (“So sorry about the mess”) drolly grows with each bloody hit to the guest list. That’s it. I must get ready – I have guests coming for dinner! If you’re not invited here, you can go watch the film on various PVOD sites (Amazon Prime, iTunes, Google Play) or buy it on Blu-ray.
Elias Savada is a movie copyright researcher, critic, craft beer geek, and avid genealogist based in Bethesda, Maryland. He helps program the Spooky Movie International Movie Film Festival, and previously reviewed for Film Threat and Nitrate Online. He is an executive producer of the horror film German Angst and the documentary Nuts! He co-authored, with David J. Skal, Dark Carnival: the Secret World of Tod Browning (a revised edition will be published by Centipede Press).