By JUSTIN MCDEVITT
Starring Liraz Chamami, Michael Aloni, and Iris Bahr
Directed by Michael Mayer
Written by Guy Ayal and Michael Mayer
You can skip the dessert and go right to coffee: HAPPY TIMES is a murder mystery without the mystery. It is a horror bloodbath without the horror. It is as senseless as it is poorly written. Cool deaths, though.
Sigal (Liraz Chamami) and Yossi (Ido Mor) host a dinner party at their LA mansion to celebrate the Jewish holiday of Purim. In attendance we have Avner (Alon Pdut), a military man suffering from PTSD, his wife and a lawyer-until-babies Hila (Iris Bahr), Ilan (Guy Adler) who wants money from Yossi for a real estate investment, Michael (Michael Aloni), Sigal’s actor cousin, his girlfriend Aliyah (Stefi Celma), and Maor (Daniel Lavid), who works for Yossi and has a crush on Sigal.
Because so much of the early drama revolves around Yossi, and this seems like a straightforward murder dinner party, you’d expect a dead patriarch before anyone even offers you a hamantashen. But in HAPPY TIMES, no one is safe. During the evening, the guests ruffle each other’s feathers by bringing up taboo dinner table topics such as Israeli politics, the selfishness of having kids, and whether the Torah is racist (but should we say some blessings anyway?). A glass of spilled wine kickstarts the action, but the pacing is erratic. It feels as though the writers themselves had no idea where the story was headed, but once they had ninety minutes worth of material, proclaimed, “Good enough!” and called it a day. It’s an impressive feat to make a movie that is as boring as it is unpredictable, but Michael Mayer has done it.
Liraz Chamami’s performance is the only standout. She brings poise, austerity, and charm to the role, then allows humor to inch its way inside, always keeping her demeanor level headed. I want her to be cast in everything. She is beauty. She is grace. She is very, very talented. In one moment Sigal holds a tin foil wrapped plate of leftovers in one hand and a crossbow in the other. I am here for that energy. We stan Liraz Chamami.
As much as we all enjoy a dinner party that devolves into murder, character motivation is essential, and while we may have a foundation to understand why the initial murder happens, I kept asking myself: “Why are they still killing people?” Avner’s PTSD consumes the narrative and he becomes our central antagonist. He is not the only murderer in HAPPY TIMES, but he is the only one provided with a backstory for his violent predilections. When Michael lures Avner away with a squeak toy I lost all respect for this film. Not everyone who has served in the military leaves with PTSD. But if you want to explore a character afflicted with this serious mental illness then you better treat it with the sensitivity it deserves. Mental health matters. You don’t get to exploit PTSD to aid your lazy writing. Do better Guy Ayal and Michael Mayer.
In 1982, Creepshow taught us how handily a marble ash tray can double as a murder weapon, and in addition to an ash tray, HAPPY TIMES offers up some ingenious instruments of death including expensive wall fixtures, hedge trimmers, and a kiln. But, in a rare twist for a horror film, this movie becomes less interesting with each murder. It would help if the filmmakers had any concept of pacing or stakes. This “Tarantino-style” exploitation flick is a reminder (as they all are) that Quentin Tarantino is first and foremost a writer. Good writing makes for better murders. A clumsy cross between Knives Out and You’re Next, with a light sprinkling of Clue, HAPPY TIMES is an inconsistent horror-comedy that is neither scary nor funny enough to justify watching during this, or any, Purim.
HAPPY TIMES is streaming now from Artsploitation Films.