REVIEW: A Strange Brand of Happy [2013]

Score: 3/10 | ★

Rating: PG-13 | Runtime: 95 minutes | Release Date: September 13th, 2013 (USA)
Studio: Integrated Media Associates
Director(s): Brad Wise
Writer(s): Brad Wise

“Is that what I hear you juncturing?”

When a film’s stars are a Grammy Award-winning rock gospel singer in Rebecca St. James and an ordained minister in Joe Boyd, it doesn’t take much to realize the “faith-friendly romantic comedy” succinctly described by its poster will be an accurate summation. While this fact doesn’t automatically mean it will turn off the rest of the world who choose to ignore God for a sense of personal control in their lives, however, it definitely isn’t going to sell them on buying a ticket either. Thankfully the heavy “God has a plan” themes don’t really come into play until around halfway through Brad Wise’s A Strange Brand of Happy, so it does give itself a chance to win us over with authentic dialogue and amazing acting talents. Unfortunately, it doesn’t actually possess those.

Strike one against the production comes from its desire to be quirky cool with superfluous details trumping story. As David (Boyd) is unceremoniously fired from his job, given a humorously well-meaning pep talk by best friend/roommate Ben (Benjamin Keller), and tricked into meeting a life coach named Joyce (St. James) for coffee to either help put things back on track or maybe fall madly in love, the only thing I could focus on was the suit of armor our newly unemployed lead was toting around town. It’s one thing to have it in the background of his apartment, but to have his afternoon chore be to wheel it to a mechanic for repairs so we can get a reaction shot of Joyce smiling at the absurdity is another—reality ostensibly being replaced by hipster charm.

Then there’s the hand-drawn animated cut scenes giving us cartoonish representations of emotional highs and lows that provide the whole with a very juvenile aesthetic despite its PG-13 rating. I get using this style on the opening credits—especially since David’s untapped talent is doodling caricatures and flipbooks on Post-It notes—but reinforcing the motif throughout becomes tiresome and unnecessary in a “did you get the joke?” kind of way. And if these were added to dupe the audience into laughing after the actual line of dialogue failed, they exist as a reminder the filmmakers would rather beat a dead horse than fix the actual script. That is the real issue at hand as its schizophrenic meanderings from vindictively childish acts to saccharinely sweet ones to awkward fumbling and drunken stupidity are tough to invest in.

Everything these characters say lacks the air with which to resonate above carefully timed line readings. Listening to Joyce and her yoga friend talk is beyond unnatural as each word drops plot points rather than intrigue. The back and forth between David and Ben does the same before their conversations devolve into physical comedy horseplay because that’s “what guys do”. And don’t get me started on the villain of the tale—David’s ex-boss William (Hunter Shepard) who happens to be after Joyce too. He is manufactured to the point of feeling as though from a completely different movie. So over-the-top douchebag, his faux compassionate side may be worse than if he had a moustache to twirl while gradually fooling the object of his affection into thinking the actual nice guy is a pervert.

Wise should have stayed simple and cute with by sticking to the old folks home volunteering angle used as a main centerpiece for David to prove he’s a worthy fellow to date. Keep in Ben for comic relief; leave the boys’ landlord Terry (Bekka Prewitt) to pine over David from afar; and let William be a constant thorn in the side to hate. Just don’t try to put an ill-fated heist or gimmicky war with title card “Rounds” in to take us out of the otherwise down-to-earth plot about a guy finding himself in the midst of personal crisis. Each aside is a skit with little plot propulsion concerning while reeking with plenty of desperation for laughs. They sink David to William’s level and allow a contrived religious epiphany to teach him the meaning of love.

I am not the target audience for a film like this—I know—but the only lead I found likeable was Keller’s buffoon Ben solely due to being the wild card adding levity to each scene. Even St. James becomes tiresome as the chaste woman with two guys fighting over her. She’s supposed to be the voice of reason yet turns über catty whenever in the vicinity of Terry. Both these women are one-dimensional at best serving as playthings for the men to string along and ultimately forgive them for it. No, the sole reason A Strange Brand of Happy is watchable comes from the senior citizens having fun with their younger friends’ drama. Marty Ingels’ Mack and Bobby Rodgers’ Albert are slyly manipulative while Venida Evans’ Rose provides sage wisdom of experience.

I liked Shirley Jones’ surly cynic and Joe Stevens’ hard-working caretaker too until their matter-of-fact demeanors were broken down into tearful sermonizing during David’s climactic moment of clarity. We learn nothing about either of them throughout the entire film and then are supposed to all of a sudden care when David decides to stop being selfish. The whole movie is built on selfish people doing hurtful things, though. You can’t just pretend it wasn’t because the lead character feels like adopting a forgiving mood. David absolves himself of his transgressions with a few drawings and a heartfelt slideshow without actually earning any of it. To this agnostic the blind acceptance of his apology is tragically naïve. For those who see it as a living embodiment of God’s love, I envy your unwavering optimism.

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