IF HEALTH CARE reform is a national preoccupation, then caring for our aging parents is increasingly a personal one. Most people I know can hardly pay their own bills, let alone subsidize the housing and feeding of another human being—so we cope with the knowledge that one day we might have to do so by just not thinking about it.
In Happy Tears, Jayne (Parker Posey) takes that very approach to her father Joe's (Rip Torn) increasingly poor health: sheer denial. Instead of flying to his bedside, she delays her trip to take a shopping detour; when she does arrive, ostensibly to take over the care of her father from her sister Laura (Demi Moore), she refuses to acknowledge the extent of her dad's decline. (Even when, moments after her arrival, Joe demonstrates that his poopin' skills aren't what they once were, and even when it becomes apparent that his "nurse"/girlfriend isn't a nurse at all, but a g-string-wearing drug addict with a stolen fur coat and a busted stethoscope.)
Jayne is married to the son of a famous painter; the couple's lavish lifestyle is funded by the sale of the late artist's work, but their efforts to have kids of their own are stymied by her husband's guilt over the source of their income. Though eager to become a parent herself, it soon becomes clear that Jayne's relationship to her own parents, and by extension her own childhood, is clouded with self-deception and confusion. Laura, meanwhile, has a bunch of kids with her probably gay husband, which is perhaps why she's characterized by a bottom-line pragmatism: She's eager to dump her dad into the care facility where he clearly belongs, and is altogether impatient with her sister's naiveté. The sisters represent two poles: Laura is witheringly cynical about her father and his legacy, while Jayne has never considered taking her father's grandiose claims at anything other than face value.
While its synopsis sounds mundane enough, Happy Tears is distinguished by a strain of high absurdity: We're talking fuzzy, stylized flashback sequences, jolts of near-campy trashiness, and a really flabbergasting, drug-induced underage-sex-on-a-space-jellyfish sequence. Some of the movie's events are beyond implausible, yet it's too determinedly hardnosed about certain details (hello, Parker Posey wiping shit off Rip Torn's ass) to dismiss completely. There are relevant, relatable emotional threads running through the movie, and there's something entertainingly gleeful about its occasional unfettered weirdness—is there really buried treasure in the backyard? Maybe! Too bad you'll have too sit through that Rip Torn shit-wiping scene to find out.