Film Review: This Is Happening

Mismatched siblings, a stuffed pet, five pounds of Mary Jane and Cloris Leachman add up to a cheery, harmless divertissement you’ll probably forget in a few months.
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There couldn’t be two more different siblings than Philip (James Wolk) and Megan Davis (Mickey Sumner). He is Mr. Responsible, the very model of a upright, do-right guy who, sadly, is completely whipped by a bitchy, bossy girlfriend. She’s a total rebel and free spirit, her every irrational, impetuous action fueled by the pot she is forever inhaling. Deeply.

They are far from close but find themselves thrown together on a road trip when their father (Judd Nelson) asks Philip to place their impossible, irascible grandmother Estelle (Cloris Leachman) in an assisted-living facility. Megan decides to accompany him, seeing the trip as a neat cover-up for a large marijuana purchase, with an eye to dealing it. When independent Estelle realizes why the two have come to her house in Palm Springs, she grabs her beloved dog (dead, but taxidermy-preserved) and hightails it for Seattle, unaware that Megan’s stash is in her trunk. The siblings set off in hot pursuit of Granny.

This sunny, mildly funny road-trip comedy is the brainchild of writer-director Ryan Jaffe. This Is Happening is nothing all that special but ingratiating enough, with a pertly appealing music score, and quite well played by its two leads. Wolk is handsome and breezily charming, underplaying Philip’s goody-two-shoes persona and making him a real, flawed, quite needy and rather touching soul. The angular Sumner gets the more flamboyant role and runs with it—her Megan is in that rich film-comedy tradition of funny bad girls, like Barbra Streisand in The Owl and the Pussycat, Sally Kellerman in Slither, Melanie Griffith in Something Wild and Juno Temple in Dirty Girl. She’s basically a total mess, but fun to watch nevertheless, although in real life you’d probably want to wring her neck.

Leachman chews the scenery as a potty-mouthed, foul-tempered octogenarian. I found her much better doing an even wilder, much more originally conceived variation of this character on the delightful TV series “Raising Hope.” The cutesy-poo, profane old crone routine is not the freshest view of the aged—indeed, I wish it could be retired forever. Nelson doesn’t have very much to do, but it’s nice to see veteran character actor Rene Auberjonois, once ubiquitous in 1970s movies, pop up in an appealing small role as Estelle’s combative Palm Springs neighbor.

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