Tolstoy claimed that every unhappy family is unhappy in its own particular way. The miserable clan in Sam Levinson’s drama, however, seems to be unhappy in all the usual screen-ready ways: drug addictions, physical and emotional abuse, self-mutilation, nervous breakdowns. For Lynn (Ellen Barkin), having to spend time with these people at her eldest son’s wedding is like entering a living hell. Her other children are all equally hot messes: Chemically imbalanced Elliot (Ezra Miller) can’t curb his cutting wit; Alice (Kate Bosworth) self-harms through actual cutting; and the youngest kid has Asperger’s syndrome. (Worse: He’s an aspiring filmmaker!) Throw in the world’s most withholding mother, a senile dad, two gossipy-gorgon sisters, a prickish ex-husband and his judgmental new wife, and you have a collection of Chekhovian characters sitting on a powder keg in a match factory.
You could get whiplash watching this bipolar drama jerk between extremes: For every extraordinary scene—such as an authentically awkward exchange between Bosworth and estranged dad Thomas Haden Church—there’s a sequence or three that might be extended collegiate acting exercises. A razor-sharp response to a grandparent’s casual racism (“It’s okay, she’s twice as old as civil rights”) is quickly buried beneath dialogue that resembles people reading the DSM-IV aloud. The young writer-director hasn’t developed the chops to take on such an epic ensemble tale of dysfunction, and the result leaves Another Happy Day’s emotionally moving moments stranded in a minefield of familial-pain clichés.