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“My Happy Ending” can’t even do a tearjerker right. The film is set in a chemotherapy clinic just outside of London, where the eccentric characters double over in pain between warm witticisms and fret about what will happen to their loved ones when they’re gone. The presumed intent is to combine the heartwarming, quirky school of British comedy (think “The Full Monty”) with the life-and-death drama of a cancer ward—a tissue-soaking slam dunk if there ever was one. And yet ...
The first of many head-scratching choices in “My Happy Ending” is the casting of Andie MacDowell as Julia Hart, an American movie star who does not belong in this film at all. (That’s true of both the character and the actor.) “My Happy Ending” is adapted from a semi-autobiographical play by the late Israeli playwright Anat Gov, who processed her own terminal cancer diagnosis on the stage. The play takes place in Israel with Israeli characters, a more coherent choice than what we get in the film version: A slapdash cobbling-together of material, setting, and the famous American actress who agreed to the role. Screenwriter Rona Tamir crams it all into a box, and forces it shut.
Regardless of the questions raised by her presence, Julia is here now, availing of the NHS in her time of need after being diagnosed with stage four colon cancer. (There’s commentary in the idea of a wealthy American choosing a humble English clinic over a famous American hospital, but this movie isn’t that astute. Instead, it makes an excuse about Julia doing a play in the West End.) At first, she’s upset that the hospital doesn’t have private rooms, because she is very famous and needs her privacy. She makes some loud, rude phone calls to this effect, causing the three women sitting in the common area to grin and giggle like the mischievous cancer elves that they are. A transformative afternoon is afoot.
The only really likable element of the film is its supporting cast, led by reliable British character actresses Miriam Margoyles and Sally Phillips. (Both have too many credits to recount here, but you’ll know them when you see them.) They play Judy and Mikey, salt-of-the-earth types instantly doomed to supporting status once the more glamorous Julia walks in. “Sex Education’s” Rakhee Thakrar co-stars as Imaan, the youngest patient in Judy and Mikey’s chemotherapy coffee klatsch; Imaan was 26 and pregnant when she was diagnosed with breast cancer, but her arc is limited by the writer’s and directors’ blinkered ideas about Muslim women.
Co-director Sharon Maymon won an Academy Award for the short film “Skin,” one of the more controversial winners in recent memory—not least because of its clumsy grasp on racial politics. Thankfully, that element is relatively light here. But “My Happy Ending” makes plenty of bad decisions in other areas. The screenplay is especially clunky: The exposition and dialogue are ineptly handled, so much so that a character will be completely ignorant of a topic in one scene and speak confidently about it in the next. The snappy Hollywood insider talk coming from Julia’s devoted manager Nancy (Tamsin Grieg), rings false, and the film declares rather than demonstrates that Julia’s presence has changed everyone’s life for the better. MacDowell, for her part, purses her lips to look concerned and softens her eyes until they’re full of benevolent tears.
“My Happy Ending” contains enough knowing in-jokes about chemotherapy and cancer in general that you can see the glimmers of the real-life experience at its core. But everything around those observations plays like A.I. wrote it. The shifting tones of satire (if Nancy’s in the room), hard-won wisdom (if Judy and/or Mikey are there), and soap-opera drama (that would be Julia) have the emotional heft of flipping a light switch. Experienced performers take the film partway, but the script kneecaps everyone—especially MacDowell, who suffers the worst of the film’s dialogue-based indignities. Happy or not, you might find yourself wishing it would end already.
Now playing in theaters.
Andie MacDowell as Julia
Miriam Margolyes as Judy
Sally Phillips as Mikey
Rakhee Thakrar as Imaan
Michelle Greenidge as Nurse Emilia
Tamsin Greig as Nancy
David Walliams as Joey
Bhavik C. Pankhania as Abed
Evelyn Mok as Dr. Shah
Yvonne Edgell as Doris
Zella Whitfield as Waitress