Short Takes: The Parent Trap

Sisters deal with dad's dementia in Happy Tears

Happy Tears ***

There's a scene in Happy Tears in which Jackson (Christian Camargo), an art dealer who is going insane, cuts himself, and the spurting blood decorates the canvas of an abstract painting. The scene is a metaphor for the movie, which was written and directed by Mitchell Lichtenstein, son of famed pop artist Roy Lichtenstein. Lichtenstein bleeds his personal history onto the canvas of this strange, often hilarious film about two sisters dealing with the dementia of their aging dad, Joe (Rip Torn as a randy hellraiser even closer to reality than we imagined before his recent arrest for armed, drunken after-hours banking).

Named after one of Roy Lichtenstein's most famous paintings, Happy Tears is informed by Mitchell's experience as a young man watching his mother lose her mind. (He would come home to find her drunk, sitting with her pet monkey on her shoulder.) He paints himself not only as Jackson, the dealer burdened with the task of managing his famous father-in-law's legacy, but also as Jayne, Jackson's pampered wife, who resorts to cheerful fantasy rather than face unpleasant realities.

Jayne, played magnificently by Parker Posey, indulges in $2,200 boots and clings to the heroic legends told by guitar-strumming old Joe, who boasts that he could have been a famous singer, has buried treasure in his backyard, and isn't losing control of his mind and bowels. Her earthier sister Laura (Demi Moore) shoulders the dirty work of cleaning up Joe's backside and tolerating his lady friend, Shelly (a brilliantly feral Ellen Barkin), a grifter in spike heels posing as a nurse.

Called back from California to the gritty Pittsburgh family home, Jayne drifts in and out of hallucinatory states to escape the realities of Dad's dementia, her husband's fragmenting psyche and her continued infertility, while Laura, a pragmatic environmentalist in peasant blouses, tries to drag her into the real world, where Dad was a philanderer who cheated on "Mommy" for years. Lichtenstein, whose previous film was the bizarre Teeth (which made literal the "vagina dentata" myth), ornaments this oddly touching family drama with audacious flights of fantasy: a shoe salesman transformed into a giant predatory bird, Jackson bouncing off padded walls, a crazy backyard treasure hunt. These absurdist sequences, carried off with film-school flamboyance, will not be everyone's cup of tea, but for those who favor smaller, offbeat movies, Happy Tears is a dream movie, graced by a dream cast. — Pamela Zoslov

Opens Friday at the Solon Cinemas

Fish Tank ** 1/2

We seldom see teen-based movies as bleak as Andrea Arnold's Fish Tank. It centers on the dismal life of 15-year-old Mia (Katie Jarvis), a girl who lives in a rough-and-tumble English housing project and spends her day causing trouble. When she's not buying illicit drugs and booze, she's fighting with other transient teens or trying to save a horse chained up in a trailer park run by a couple of ruffians. When her alcoholic mother (Kierston Wareing) starts dating Connor (Michael Fassbender), a good-looking security guard, an already tense situation at home becomes even tenser, especially after Connor sleeps with Mia one night. The only thing that gives Mia any sense of hope is the hip-hop and soul music she relentlessly listens to, practicing breakdancing moves in abandoned apartments.

With its realistic approach, Fish Tank comes off like a British Kids, and Mia is such a troublemaker, it's often hard to sympathize with her. But, played by Jarvis, an untrained actress who makes a notable debut here, she's an interesting character, even if she often makes the wrong decisions (her attempt to kidnap Connor's daughter is particularly misguided). The film's slow pace, however, is frustrating. While Arnold (Red Road) obviously intends for Fish Tank to be a slice-of-life look at reality, its two-hour running time often feels laborious, despite fine performances by Jarvis and Fassbender, who was so terrific as Bobby Sands in last year's Hunger.Jeff Niesel

Opens Friday at the Capitol Theatre