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Review: Welcome to Happiness- “A forgettable debut for Oliver Thompson”

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A catchy title and a promising premise (on paper) is probably what prompts viewers to watch the feature-film debut of Oliver Thompson as a director, producer and screenwriter, but even a talented cast couldn’t save ‘Welcome to Happiness´ from quickly becoming borderline unwatchable. For a film that treats with complex and thought-provoking themes such as happiness, letting go of the past and self-exploration, it’s surprisingly, and almost insultingly straightforward. Kyle Gallner plays Woody, a children’s book author experiencing a writer’s block (which must be an allegory to how this cliché, lifeless script came to be) whilst total strangers knock on his door for some sort of therapy session we never really understand the point of. As it turns out, Woody’s apartment, which he rents from his landlord played by the beloved Nick Offerman, has a mysterious door in his closet which allows people to erase, or fix, mistakes from their past. A plot with potential, that is so poorly developed that we are left wondering whether the film was actually seen by anyone before screening it to the public.

The film’s first impressions aren’t too bad, as we are treated to a visually appealing set design and what would seem to be sophisticated cinematography, but it seemed Thompson misunderstood “sophisticated”- maybe he was trying a bit too hard? If you’re a debuting director, trying to imitate Wes Anderson’s camerawork and visual style is a very tall task and one that can set you up for failure quite easily.  First of all, a film that has a running time of 108 minutes (and you feel every minute of it), shouldn’t spend 40 minutes, where nothing entertaining happens, introducing characters that seem recycled from other indie films that worked better, re-used in this film with minimal development, depth, or even a clear-cut purpose for the film’s narrative progression. I was constantly waiting for the moment when the film would deliver its punch and engage me in it, but that moment never came. Apart from following Woody, the film follows two other major characters; Nyles (Brendan Sexton III), a mysterious man with a dark past, and Ripley (Josh Brener) an awkward, introverted baseball card collector. But it’s the usually-refreshing faces of Nick Offerman and Keegan-Michael Key which do the biggest disservice to the audience. Key plays some sort of rich guru character that is somewhat responsible for the door in Woody’s apartment, but his overly eccentric acting style is cringe-worthy and makes us wonder whether the film is trying to be serious at any point. The thing is, as the character of Woody starts to get more and more complex when he struggles to understand why he can’t go through the door in his closet, yet total strangers can go in and erase their mistakes, it would appear that the film is taking a turn for the better. Real emotions are communicated by a very game Kyle Gallner, but the film goes in the opposite direction, getting less and less deep. “I just want my parents back” is what Woody, a successful, 30-something year old writer says to his cold, insensitive landlord, who says that only “those who deserve it” can go through that door. Yes, that’s the MacGuffin of this film.

The worst thing about it all is that, as hard as the film is to watch in itself, its overuse of music makes it almost unbearable. Everything is accompanied by a cheesy, indie-pop original soundtrack which gives the film a confusingly upbeat tone, making it harder to relate to characters going through “serious” internal crises and confronting ghosts from their past.

The film doesn’t lack ambition- Thompson’s debut shows him trying his best at making a film he maybe should’ve done further on in his career. He’s in a constant struggle between taking a more formulaic approach to his film, and using unconventional, over-the-top, Wes Anderson-esque techniques. As Woody gets more and more frustrated and without a sense of direction, it seems so does the film. As for the ending, though I won’t spoil it, I must say it’s not worth watching through the whole film. What’s behind the door of the closet is one of the most disappointing world creations and narrative plot twists in recent years, and a final message that basically sums up to; “Everything happens for a reason.” A poor directorial debut by the young Thompson, but I wouldn’t pit him as a failure just yet. Like the characters in his film, he should understand that everything happens for a reason, and let’s hope this film was just a learning experience for him.

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