It’s going to be tough for How I Met Your Mother star Josh Radnor to avoid two comparisons in particular with regard to his unfortunately titled directorial debut, HappyThankYouMorePlease. First off, he’s following in the footsteps of Zach Braff, another man-child sitcom actor who had a successful Sundance launch of his debut film. Secondly, he’s made a movie about twentysomethings shirking maturity and fumbling for romance in New York City, a premise awfully similar to his TV show. But HappyThankYouMorePlease has a different vibe than Garden State or HIMYM. It’s more like a late-’80s/early-’90s Woody Allen film, after Allen stopped separating his comedy and drama.
Radnor casts himself as a slovenly, promiscuous writer who assumes accidental custody of an African-American foster child he finds on the subway. Meanwhile, Radnor tries to convince skeptical cabaret singer Kate Mara to take a chance on him, while his friends Zoe Kazan and Pablo Schreiber bicker over Schreiber’s plan to move to L.A., and Radnor’s best friend (and alopecia sufferer) Malin Akerman ducks the advances of her sweet co-worker Tony Hale. Over the course of a few days, this circle of friends and acquaintances deals with big life changes, which force them out of a routine that wasn’t as satisfying as they thought.
Radnor has a knack with actors, and his dialogue is snappy without drifting too far toward sitcom-y or quirky. In spite of the bald lady and the adorable moppet, Radnor seems to be striving for something that feels true, not cute. The downside to his approach is that HappyThankYouMorePlease lacks drive. It’s a collection of life-lessons and unduly angsty characters in search of something to do, all set to the kind of mellow, indistinct indie-rock soundtrack that makes everything feel more soporific. If anyone who wasn’t on TV 22 Mondays a year pitched a movie this vague, he’d be never get a callback.
HappyThankYouMorePlease features enough well-observed touches to prove Radnor deserved this shot: Hale’s last-ditch pitch to Akerman is sweet, and Radnor smartly films one character’s major announcement by focusing on the back of her head, building suspense by blocking the listener’s face until the moment of reaction. If only those moments didn’t share screen space with eye-roll-worthy scenes like the one where Mara (speaking metaphorically) tells Radnor he’s just a short-story writer, and she’s looking for a novelist. Word to the wise, kid: Never write the critics’ reviews for them.