After exploring the mysteries of vagina dentata in the horror-comedy Teeth, writer-director Mitchell Lichtenstein gets more prosaic with his second film, Happy Tears, an alternately wacky and earthy melodrama about how people deal with what their parents leave them. Demi Moore and Parker Posey play sisters whose unhappy lives are disrupted when they have to return to Pittsburgh to take care of their senile, incontinent father, Rip Torn. Moore has long resented Torn for his affairs, lies, and overall grossness, while the more romantic, irresponsible Posey remains enchanted with his stories of buried treasures and rakish conquests. When a neurologist tells the sisters that Torn’s condition is going to deteriorate rapidly, Moore wants to put him in a home, but Posey wants to take him back to Los Angeles, to live with her and her husband Christian Camargo, the wealthy son of a famous artist.
Lichtenstein himself is the wealthy son of a famous artist, which should be the first indicator that Happy Tears is coming from a more personal place than Teeth. And that personal touch—coupled with strong performances—saves the movie from disappearing into a black hole of indie-quirk. Happy Tears is all over the map, tonally. If Posey isn’t obsessively checking her vaginal discharge to see if she’s ovulating, she’s having vivid daydreams in which shoe salesmen become squawking birds. And between the bizarre behavior and outright farce, Lichtenstein indulges some arty moments: an unduly extended shot of a plane landing, for example, and a scene where Camargo smears blood on a canvas to vent his frustration over being stranded in his father’s shadow.
Then again, at least there’s nothing generic about Happy Tears’ depiction of how it feels to be the steward of someone else’s legacy. Lichtenstein smartly uses the Camargo subplot as an echo of what Moore and Posey are going through, as they literally hose the shit off their father. The sisters are saddled with a burden they don’t want, but one that’s bringing them closer together. Happy Tears is a complete mess of a movie, but Lichtenstein conjures some sweet moments and striking metaphors—and none more striking than Posey’s $500 boots, which look either black or blue, given the available light. Is dealing with parents a hassle or a blessing? It depends on the time of day.