‘Happily’ Ponders Whether or Not Transcendentally Happy Marriages Are Allowed to Exist

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Happily (CREDIT: Saban Films)

Starring: Joel McHale, Kerry Bishé, Stephen Root, Natalie Zea, Paul Scheer, Natalie Morales, Jon Daly, Kirby Howell-Baptiste, Shannon Woodward, Charlyne Yi, Breckin Meyer, Al Madrigal

Director: BenDavid Grabinski

Running Time: 95 Minutes

Rating: R for A Very Horny Couple and Other Couples Who Wish They Were That Horny

Release Date: March 19, 2021 (Theaters and On Demand)

Do you know a married couple who are so in love that you absolutely hate them for it? That’s the hook of Happily, and it’s a good one. Tom and Janet (Joel Mchael and Kerry Bishé) said “I do” 14 years ago, but even after all that time, every time they look at each other it’s like they’re discovering the entire concept of love for the very first time. They can barely go five minutes without going all the way in the nearest bedroom. Their conflicts (insofar as they have any conflicts at all) consist of little more than one of them asking for an omelette, but then doing it on their own, and immediately apologizing for being ever-so-slightly thoughtless. But then one day a fellow played by Stephen Root in a business suit shows up at their doorstep, and he might as well have a flashing sign shouting “DANGER!” above his head.

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‘The Map of Tiny Perfect Things’ is Here to Fulfill the Time Loop Movie Quota

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The Map of Tiny Perfect Things (CREDIT: Dan Anderson/Amazon Studios)

Starring: Kyle Allen, Kathryn Newton, Jermaine Harris, Josh Hamilton, Jorja Fox, Cleo Fraser, Anna Mikami, Al Madrigal

Director: Ian Samuels

Running Time: 99 Minutes

Rating: PG-13 for Random, Mostly Harmless Teenage Shenanigans

Release Date: February 12, 2021 (Amazon Prime Video)

Oh wow, another time loop movie already? Is Hollyweird required to release at least one of these per year? (Or does it just feel that way because it seems like all the days in the real world are just reruns?) This time around, the romantic story takes special prominence, as was also the case in the loopy likes of Groundhog Day, Palm Springs, and even Happy Death Day. As with Palm Springs, the main guy and gal in The Map of Tiny Perfect Things are both re-doing the same day, and it’s that commonality from whence their sparks fly (at least initially). And I mean, hey, why not! That’s a pretty significant similarity. If you’re living through a time loop, it’s hard to fully relate to anyone else unless they’re also living through that loop.

When we first meet Mark (Kyle Allen) and Margaret (Kathryn Newton), they appear to be at least dozens – if not hundreds (or thousands) – of loops deep. And quite frankly, they’re totally OVER it all. That’s not to say they’re in Despair Mode, but rather that they have a roll-with-the-punches attitude of teenagers privileged enough to not yet be crushed by the weight of adult responsibilities. In a typical time loop movie, breaking out of the loop requires (or is at least accompanied by) discovering how to be a better person. As for Mark and Margaret, sure, they learn some lessons, but that aspect feels more or less beside the point. Instead, they spend their time experiencing all the titular “tiny perfect things” (like the sunset or a cute lost dog reappearing) that occur in their town on this particular day, because what the heck else are they going to do with all this infinity?

Eventually, we do get an explanation about why this loop started and how it shall end, and your chances of finding it emotionally satisfying will probably depend on whether or not you’re a teenager or if you can at least tap into your inner teen. But before we get there, Tiny Perfect Things is more interested in the minutiae of making the most minute changes while repeating a process over and over. There’s a runner in which Mark explains everything that’s going on to his friend Henry (Jermaine Harris) while Henry plays video games. It’s in these moments when the movie is at its most comfortable, as it posits: what if life were like a video game in which you keep making it to the same point and try something different each time to survive or successfully complete a task? Depending on your inclination, the result would either be mind-numbing or endlessly fascinating (or perhaps both).

The Map of Tiny Perfect Things is Recommended If You Like: Twitch video game streaming, AB testing, Discovering postmodernism for the first time

Grade: 2.5 out of 5 Lost Dogs

‘The Way Back’ Allows Ben Affleck to Meet His Fate as a Washed-Up High School Basketball Coach

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CREDIT: Warner Bros.

Starring: Ben Affleck, Al Madrigal, Janina Gavankar, Michaela Watkins, Brandon Wilson, Lukas Gage, Melvin Gregg

Director: Gavin O’Connor

Running Time: 108 Minutes

Rating: R for Basketball Coaches and Players Struggling to Adhere to a Catholic School Code of Conduct

Release Date: March 6, 2020

Ben Affleck is now at the point in his career where he can play a washed-up, middle-aged high school basketball coach and it is the most natural thing in the world. Honestly, his lead role in The Way Back feels like what he was destined for his whole career. Chip-on-his-shoulder energy has always been a major part of his persona, and now he’s at the age at which it fits most comfortably. He’s taken plenty of lumps, and he’s retreated a bit, but he’s got some loved ones who want him to get back in the game and give it another go. The character of Jack Cunningham is basically the Sad Affleck meme writ large with an even more tragic backstory. He was once the most heralded high school basketball player in the state, but now he spends most of his days in a drunken haze, with his refrigerator stocked entirely with rows of (neatly arranged) beer cans. But then he’s offered the suddenly vacant head coaching job at Bishop Hayes, his Catholic alma mater, and he’s finally motivated to do something he cares about besides wallow around in his misery.

The current state of the Bishop Hayes team is a sick joke compared to what it was in Jack’s heyday. Back then, about a hundred guys tried out for the team, but now, they need to pull up a few guys from the junior varsity squad to even be able to have ten players to run a practice. They’re not without some bright spots, but they’re undersized and outclassed by most of their opponents. They lose their first game with Jack coaching by an unceremonious 36 points, and at that point, it is not clear if this movie will actually be an inspirational story in which they turn it around and start winning. Frankly, it might start to strain credulity a bit too much if they do start challenging for a championship. But The Way Back gratifies viewers who know how basketball works by demonstrating how opportunities open up when you can get past the intimidation factor. Bishop Hayes does indeed start winning, pulling off upsets against ostensibly more talented teams with pressure-filled defense that neutralizes their opponents’ strongest players and by operating offenses that amplify their own strengths. So when that last-second shot in the big game does go through the hoop, the triumph feels legitimate.

But just as The Way Back looks like it is going to wrap up like any other inspirational sports drama, it follows a different, messier strain. Getting back into the game has helped Jack come a long way with his personal rehabilitation, but it hasn’t really addressed what’s eating away at his soul. He and his ex-wife (Janina Gavankar) share a deep trauma that he’s nowhere near close to getting over. At a crucial moment, he says, “I never stopped being angry,” and that’s clear enough in every frame without him saying it, but it’s nonetheless powerful to hear it said. The Way Back packs a lot of redemption into an hour and fifty minutes, and I do wonder if these turnarounds will be permanent based on the work we get to see. But the raw, vulnerable energy on display is a blessing to witness.

After one game filled with some profanity-laced tirades, the team’s chaplain gently reminds Jack of the school’s code of conduct, to which Jack replies, considering all the terrible things in this world, does God really give a (not-safe-for-work four-letter word) what he and the boys say? That’s the crux of the matter, that in fact it really does matter how we personally conduct ourselves despite everything awful we’ve been through, and it’s undeniably affecting to witness our fellow humans opening themselves up to that challenge.

The Way Back is Recommended If You Like: Hoosiers, Redemption, Smart coaching

Grade: 3.5 out of 5 Comebacks