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Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Terribly Happy (2008)

This Dutch crime-thriller ultimately had to be put to the "localization test" after my viewing of the just-released R1 DVD. That test involves looking at a foreign-language film and evaluating if the cache of the production and the quality of the film come from the film itself or if the "foreign-ness" of the thing is really what's being sold. Simply put: if Terribly Happy were in English, would it be any good?

Well, it's not any good in Dutch, which makes the overwhelmingly positive critical response to it so confounding to me. I'm typically resistant to allowing the opinions sway my own when it comes to assessing a film, but its many fans and defenders are part of why I sought this movie out. And after an hour of - well, not suffering, but working my way through this film, I admit to a certain level of exasperation with anyone who's seen this and thought it rose anywhere above mediocrity.

The problems started for me from the beginning when I couldn't help shaking the feeling that I was watching a foreign-language riff on Hot Fuzz with a muted color palette. Indeed, Terribly Happy's Robert is transplanted from Copenhagen to a small, marshland town after some kind of nervous crisis puts him on the outs with his superiors back in the big city. The mud and dirt-covered hamlet is in need of a new marshal - not because they want anyone actually dispensing law and order, but it's just their way. Robert comes to find that the people of the town have a lot of ways: ways of hanging their clothes, ways of dealing with shoplifting children, ways of getting rid of unwanted bodies.

In this, the script by director Henrik Ruben Genz and Dunja Gry Jensen along with the stellar cinematography by Jorgen Johanssen are actually most successful, establishing a grim, slightly paranoid tone that would have better served a more well-developed conflict than the one provided here. That conflict is between Robert and local bully, Jorgen. Jorgen is broad, squat, and calmly mean, and may or may not be beating his disturbed wife, Ingelise. While this premise is fraught with tension I had trouble actually buying into it because of several irrational or plainly stupid actions on Robert's part. I have to confess to looking at the time remaining and checking out a little bit in the second half after the second or third boneheaded decision by the lead that just dug him deeper and deeper into the hole in which he found himself. I have patience for this kind of character when it's clear that there's an element of thrill-seeking as with Jeffrey from Blue Velvet or part of a slow-burn madness as with Next Door's (Naboer, 2005) John, but the script doesn't really earn Robert's behavior or develop it in any convincing way.

There was another issue that undermined the whole thing and that was the sexual tension between Robert and Ingelise - or lack thereof. The actress Lene Maria Christensen throws herself into the role and crashes around in it with abandon. While her dedication to the performance is admirable, it also made me think that, as Robert, I would definitely try to keep my distance from this lunatic woman and her obvious mental problems. After a bit it became clear his character had nothing in the way of survival instincts and as a viewer I didn't want to be around him and his ridiculously self-destructive behavior.

Again, I have to wonder if the goodwill directed at the film was in part a result of it being a well-shot foreign film. I don't think other writers were bamboozled or anything like that, but I suspect that throwing an accent on the events of the film may have made it somewhat more appealing.

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