It’s going to be impossible for the Sweaty Robot crew – the masterminds behind Happy Birthday, Harris Malden – to avoid comparisons to Broken Lizard and that group’s particular body of work. They’re both comedic groups, both named by adding an adjective to something cool, and both producing absurd films that focus on strange characters. There are even some decent physical similarities between certain members of both troupes. But that’s where the comparisons should end for anyone really paying attention to what Sweaty Robot is doing.
Happy Birthday, Harris Malden is the story of a young man who has a secret that everyone knows: he paints on his facial hair. He lives in a state of arrested development after a tragic event in his childhood, and the occasion of his birthday acts as a catalyst to test his life-long friendships and the direction his life is heading.
If that doesn’t sound like comedy, it shouldn’t. But the film itself is an earnest tightrope walk between ridiculous comedy and heartfelt interpersonal drama. It’s also a fantastic look at a close community, a makeshift family that has grown together and sees itself changing. If all of this is sounding like a heavy dramatic work, keep in mind that a guy paints on wacky mustaches and beards on his face and the people around him pretend he’s not doing it. Thus, a lot of the drama is toned down, and so is a lot of the comedy in the same muted way that a lot of indie films do these days. Still, Happy Birthday is not the typical indie comedy. It’s a ridiculous premise that has its roots in a story that asks what you really do for someone when you’re friends.
The most striking quality of the movie is the cinematography. While it’s got a similar scripted feel with a subtle blend of improv that many DIY comedies have, it’s shot with incredible awareness and beautifully crafted scenes. Cinematographer Matthew Sanchez brings a keen eye to the table, having to deal with the tight areas of Philadelphia row housing and the openness of the streets of the city. His framing is near flawless throughout the film, elevating the film to a professional level – making the small budget stretch far more than any other element present in the movie.
Of course, the acting in the film is solid. As it should be. So much of the story relies on the conversations and small moments between characters. Happy Birthday shines a Waters-esque light on a neighborhood in Philadelphia, the kind of family that isn’t connected by blood. It’s built on the small hopes of progression of each character as they also grip tightly to what they’re comfortable with. If I can take the comparisons further, it’s as if Broken Lizard wrote a film and got John Waters to direct it. This movie is the best of both worlds, yet colored by the amateur trappings of a first film. However the acting in it fits into that clean category of people-being-people. The roles are all naturally brought to life without pretense or over-dramatics. The characters in this film react to the situations at hand like any normal human being would which gives the flick an added note of authenticity. Susan Slatin (who plays Grams) is especially strong at bringing a sweet, yet slightly off balance character to life in a realistic way. Even with the absurdity, the actors never overreach for laughs or point out just how ridiculous the world around them is.
Over all, the story is a really interesting one that takes a look at a world where people are trying to make everything okay all the time even when they’re not. The main protagonist (in a story without any real antagonists) is Paul Levine (played by Eric Levy), a guy who has done all he can to protect his best friend Harris (Nick Gregorio) from facing the pain behind a tragic event that happened on Harris’s birthday years and years ago. By doing so, he’s kept his friend and his family happy, but it’s come with the price tag of never being able to leave Harris’s side, and Harris being saddled with a case of arrested development – in the form of fake facial hair. Harris becomes something to be explained to the outside world, and it actively cages him from moving on with his life. Somehow, something this dramatic is tackled with incredible humor simply because of the absurd way that the psychosis manifests itself. Harris is a sweet guy, but he’s also a full-grown adult who still paints a fake, very pronounced mustache on every day.
As previously hinted at, the movie does have its share of flaws – mostly in the realm of budget and the lesson-learning process of making a first feature. It’s clear that the crew did a lot with a very small amount of money, but some tell-tale signs that it’s an indie are still there – something that might enhance the viewing experience for some while detracting for others. There are some odd editing choices from time to time, and the sub-plot is more of a clever distraction than a truly woven part of the story as a whole, but the film works on a lot of levels, and it’s to be commended for that. What the filmmakers have done here is to create a truly enjoyable film that doesn’t need a lot of bells and whistles to satisfy. Good solid acting, some amazingly professional camera work, and a quirky story set it apart as an indie that will hopefully gain some ground and pick up distribution along the way.
It would be easy to look at Broken Lizard’s first film Puddle Cruiser and make comparisons to the comedic feel and indie style that Happy Birthday, Harris Malden has. They have many differences that set them apart, but a similar spirit is there, and if that’s the case – be on the lookout for the Sweaty Robot crew to make a second movie that breaks through in a major way.