by Cat McAlpine
Tensions at a Shabbat dinner party turn dangerous when a group of Israeli-American friends, family, and business partners boil over before coffee and dessert. Dangerous egos, backstabbing, cheating in love and money, and a struggle for social power all contribute to a brutal and increasingly absurd crescendo of blood and water.
You know, Happy Times.
Michael Mayer’s unique view as director and writer, with co-writer Guy Ayal, keeps the horror comedy from falling too flat. The stereotypes Mayer introduces don’t just create a thrilling sequence of clashes, but also bring out fun performances from the cast as a whole. A conceited struggling actor is moments away from losing it. A young man’s lust for a married woman is bound to get him in trouble. A shady business deal fails to get off the ground and clogs the works.
The characters in Happy Times are vibrant, and though largely unlikeable, you can’t stop watching their descent into chaos. Michael Aloni bristles with ego and rage as Michael. Liraz Chamami is captivating as Sigal, constantly trying to recorrect the course of the evening with hilarious timing and a casual brutality. Stéfi Celma is a lovely straight man to the madness that unfolds around her as the cultural outsider, Aliyah. The full ensemble brings a delightful sin and indulgence to the scene.
As Happy Times continues it starts to lose the plot a bit, with a snowballing bloodlust carrying the final third of the film. But the absurdity is baked in by the final moments. I was left shaking my head and thinking, “Sure. Why not?”
Though it is missing some sparkle at the end, there can’t always be a winner in a social situation as messy as this one. The slow burn of Happy Times perfectly builds the necessary tensions to support its later rampage.
The true success of this film is in the characters it creates, and those characters are what carry genuine laughter and shock. Whether you love or hate your family, Happy Times is a cathartic release of tensions anyone will recognize.