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- Trance (The Eternal)

REVIEW of Happy Here & Now (2001)

by David Hunter

CineVegas International Film Festival

The future is quieter, emotionally subdued and grayly mysterious, at least in the small hop forward imagined by filmmaker Michael Almereyda. In the challenging, well-realized "Happy Here and Now," Almereyda has another potential critical hit to rival his last film, "Hamlet," and its commercial destiny looks promising.

Immediately engaging one with a succintly intimate tone while tracking parallel stories of wavering young souls living in a New Orleans shorn of its touristy surface, "Happy" succeeds in introducing a sci-fi concept that works best as a metaphor rather than as a prediction of the future. Through the Internet and sensory devices that capture one's facial nuances, it is possible to create a mask, or generated face, to engage surreptitiously in one-on-one conversations with strangers.

We see such a cyber-encounter right off, with Muriel (Shalom Harlow) conversing with a cowboy-hat-wearing philosopher who calls himself Eddie Mars. In another startling sequence a young fireman named Tom is introduced.

The film gets away with a risky gambit with lead Karl Geary playing both Eddie Mars and Tom -- although they are not one and the same person.

Enter Amelia (Liane Balaban), who comes to town looking for Muriel, her sister who has disappeared. Spiritually adrift herself but strongly motivated to find Muriel, Amelia stays with her aunt (Ally Sheedy) and teams up with an ex-government-agent-turned-private-investigator (Clarence Williams III).

Their first task in finding Muriel is to peer into her computer's memory, which leads them to Eddie Mars.

Eventually, it's revealed that the person behind the Eddie Mars "avatar" is termite-obsessed, wannabe filmmaker Eddie (David Arquette), who is also Tom's brother. Along with a sequence where Amelia dreams while still connected to the computer, Eddie's bumbling attempt to make a raunchy Internet short about one of his favorite historical minds, Nicola Tesla, deftly illustrates Almereyda's concerns about identity and communication.

"Happy" is beautifully acted and filmed, with the Internet imagery rendered in Pixelvision. The story is broadened nicely by including recently widowed Hannah (Gloria Reuben), a music teacher married to a fireman killed in the line of duty. Her sad quest leads her to Tom and their potential romance nicely brings us around to the hope of rebirth. The musical selections and score are big factors in modulating the film's subtle moods, while the late R&B legend Ernie K-Doe plays an important supporting role and sings "Children of the World" in one inspired sequence.

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