It is always a delight to see 89-year-old Cloris Leachman on screen, whether she’s getting down on “Dancing with the Stars” or hearing her iconic voice in the animated film The Croods. We know her as a quick-witted woman with sass, and we love her for it. It’s no surprise then that Leachman shines as the ailing but feisty grandmother in the comedy This is Happening, a heartfelt story about two estranged siblings setting aside their differences in order to find their runaway grandma.
Per his father’s instructions, straight-laced Philip Davis (James Wolk) is instructed to place his grandmother Estelle (Leachman) in an assisted living facility. Not wanting to disappoint his father, Philip obligatorily prepares for a solo trip to his grandma’s house in Palm Springs, leaving behind a mediocre job and a bossy girlfriend for a week. When his drug dealer/slacker sister Megan (Mickey Sumner) hears of Philip’s trip, she sees it as an opportunity to pick up a large supply of marijuana from her dealer, so she convinces Philip to let her tag along.
If anything, Cloris Leachman is the film’s saving grace, and could be reason enough to watch the film.
When they find Estelle at her home, they are taken aback by her eccentricity. Her taxidermied dog Ralph rests atop the television set while Estelle’s copper wig lays perfectly styled on top of her head. It isn’t until Estelle and Megan smoke some pot when Megan lets it slip that the only reason why her and her brother are there is to put her in a retirement home. Not one for confined living, Estelle grabs the stuffed dog and takes off in the middle of the night for Seattle. As if the stakes of a missing grandma wasn’t high enough, Megan reveals to Philip that she left a 5 lb bag of marijuana in the trunk of the car that Estelle took.
At its core, This is Happening is a very silly, over the top film that could have greatly benefitted from the “less is more” approach. Having Philip and Megan be two polar opposites that ultimately come together for the greater good is a theme that has done before, but it is the way in which the characters push each other’s buttons that is tiring to watch. Some of the bizarre situations they find themselves in, like breaking out of hospitals and stealing convenience food from small town gas stations, could have been genuinely funny if the scenes were played more realistically and less soap opera-y. The acting seemed as if it was for the stage, in which case over exaggeration is encouraged. In films, however, over exaggeration is obnoxious. Unfortunately, the characters of Philip and Megan are so “by the book” and stereotypical that we can predict the upcoming jokes in the scenes and sigh from the lack of authenticity that makes either character sympathetic.
This is Happening seems targeted to millennials, and could do well among the VOD audience. If anything, Cloris Leachman is the film’s saving grace, and could be reason enough to watch the film. Her performance is reminiscent of June Squibb in Nebraska, to give an even better idea. Director Ryan Jaffe may not have hit a home run with this film, but seeing as this is his feature film directorial debut, I have high hopes that his breakout film will be forthcoming.
This is Happening opens this Friday at the Laemmle Ahrya Fine Arts Movie Theatre in Beverly Hills.