“The Happy Sad” of Open Relationships

Adapted from the stage of Ken Urban’s 2009 play of the same name, The Happy Sad follows the evolution of two relationships when both couples decide to change their relationship status from “exclusive” to “open.” Directed by Rodney Evans, the romantic drama is set primarily in Brooklyn and is a darker twist on Jacob Chase’s 2010 film, Four-Faced Liar. At Friday night’s premiere in New York City, Evans described the film as “an intimate portrait of two couples, navigating sexual identity and issues of trust and commitment.”

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The film begins with Marcus and Aaron (fabulously portrayed by LeRoy McClain and Charlie Barnett) deciding to open up their six year, and seemingly idyllic, relationship. There’s no explanation why the couple does so, lending to the stereotype, at least for this lesbian, that all gay men are insatiable fuck-machines. This long-term relationship between two gay POCs is juxtaposed to the newish, six-month, white, hetero relationship between Annie (Sorel Carradine) and Stan (The Whiskey Collection frontman Cameron Scoggins). Annie’s discontent is palpable; she is weary of the relationship moving too fast, as evinced by Stan’s gift to her of one of his hideous, flowery Rorschach paintings, so that she can place it next to her bed and think of him, always.

Upon receiving the gift Annie tells Stan she needs space and that she’s seeing someone else. “What’s his name?” Stan asks weepily. “Mandy. Her name is Mandy,” Annie stutters in response, not out of fear of disclosing her sexual fluidity as much as out of the shame she feels for lying to him. She’s actually not seeing Mandy (Maria Dizzia), her fellow teaching colleague at a Brooklyn middle school—but she would like to, at least, explore the crush-feelings she has for her fellow teacher.

When Annie does hook up with Mandy, Stan, perhaps inspired by Annie’s sexual fluidity, joins a gay male porn site and begins hooking up with Marcus. But when Stan misses Annie, and Marcus—who breaks the rules of “no lying” and “no falling in love”—falls in love with Stan, and then lies about these feelings to Aaron, all hell breaks loose, which is understandable, because people need to stop pretending that sex can happen without emotion.

And, if you think it can, you probably have the most unpassionate robot-sex imaginable.

Sorry, you probably do.

Urban, who wrote the screenplay for the cinematic adaptation, said he sees the two productions as “totally different things.”  While Evans feels the film ends on an optimistic note—which would transmute the title from The Happy Sad into The Sad Happy—I happen to agree with Urban that the film betrays a more pessimistic message about intimate relationships. The film’s ambivalence, epitomized by the affectively discordant title, was echoed by Urban, who commented, “generally I’m not much of a believer in hope but sometimes life tells me I’m wrong.”

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But the quality of inherent unease characteristic of the Shakespearean problem play that is likewise affected in The Happy Sad is magnified by the randomness of some of the film’s dramatic turns and plot oversights, such as: Why do Marcus and Aaron open their relationship? Why does a very hetero-seeming Stan date Marcus? Why does Annie push away Stan, and then Mandy, and then return to Stan? What is the function of Jamal, the young schoolboy whose gaze the camera frames from time to time, but who has no relevance to either plot?

With the above questions in mind, I have to agree with Stephen Farber of The Hollywood Reporter, who commented that the film not only seems disjointed but that it “skims stubbornly at the surface” of many socio-political issues that factor into all relationships. Issues of sexual identity and of race are glossed over, perhaps due to Evans’s desire to focus solely on giving the audience a portrait of intimacy, but there were one too many occasions—Annie starting to give Stan head as he recounts his sex with Stan, only to pull away when Stan reveals he was the bottom; Stan (a white, bi-curious man) punching Marcus (a gay, black man) out of…frustration? shame?…and fleeing Marcus’s apartment— where these issues figured as metaphorical elephants that pulled this viewer out of the dramatic moment.

Furthermore, in light of Jenji Kohan’s not too surprising disclosure that the entertainment industry only greenlights productions with white POVs, I couldn’t help but feel the character of Annie—the stereotypically anal, kind of privileged, white girl in her mid-20s—to be a fabrication in the world of Marcus and Aaron. In other words, I’m not completely sold on the idea that a portrait of intimacy can be set within a vacuum-like frame divorced from the very real material, economic, and socio-cultural forces that affect and actually give rise to those intimate relations.

Yet, all’s well that ends well, at least for us lesbians. While the two intrepid couples end up bruised and battered, the one relationship—granted, it’s a new relationship—that remains standing on both feet is the lesbian relationship between Mandy and Alice (Sujean Lee), who she met, of course, in the steamroom at her gym.

The Happy Sad is currently playing in LA and NYC.

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