A laconic, creepy, Danish-Coen-brothers cascade of pure trouble, Henrik Ruben Genz’s “Terribly Happy” is a terrific example of a film traveling well-worn style and content paths and yet somehow never striking us as clichéd or even tired. Helplessly, critics bellyache about movies that repeat experiences they’ve had many times before, whereas the average moviegoer has substantially fewer accumulated movie hours and are less prone to noticing or caring if a film treads on well-scorched ground.
Such is the downside of decent criticism; we need knowledgeable reviewing (not, we should note, consumer bulletins from pop music writers or gore-loving fanboy diaries or Anthony Lane jokes), but pro reviewers’ movie lives are simply not the same as their readers’ — they are relentless and habitual rather than whimsical and recreational, and the difference matters.
Even so, as with Genz’s moody piece of mayhem, critics who retch at formula exhaustion and too-easy manipulations in some genres can enjoy the same general familiarities in others — it’s one of the simple ways subjectivity can dig a canyon between the writer and his/her inattentive audience. There’s no question that “Terribly Happy” sets us up in ways we know as well as we know Frances McDormand’s smile lines, but the subgenre the Coens have made their own — Anxious Rube Goldberg Meta-Comedy – is so rich with dread and discomfiture and narrative secrets that we may never tire of it.
Some genres are simply better than others, and certainly some last longer in the sun. Conventional romance schmaltz and profane bromances (have you seen an Apatow movie twice?) curdle with time, but the ironic Dominoes of Disaster movie, like noir itself, may never grow old no matter how many times you sign up.
Genz’s hero is paradigmatic: Hansen (Jakob Cedergren) is a Copenhagen cop reassigned (for reasons he tries to keep secret) to what might be the most inbred, insular, soul-rotten boondock town in Scandinavia. It’s little more than a weathered, gray-sky intersection with straight-arrow roads to nowhere heading in four directions. Just doing the simplest cop jobs is a matter complicated by fear, unwritten laws and suspicion.
Following up a juvenile shoplifting incident (where the offending kid is locked in a dark closet by the shopkeeper), Hansen discovers a beating — and no official police record-keeping — is what the locals prefer. No one can say exactly what happened to the previous town marshal. Of course, a young blond wife comes on to the handsome outsider everyone else treats with open derision, her husband is a locally notorious near-homicidal bully (Kim Bodnia, the Danish Tom Sizemore, familiar from Nicholas Winding Refn’s first “Pusher” film), the town doctor (relied upon for autopsy reports and such) is a corrupt junkie, the bog on the outskirts of town is a repository of who knows how many guilty secrets, and so on.
Every day is a trial of outsider queasiness and hovering danger for Hansen, particularly as he insists on actually doing his job. Which entangles him with the unstable blonde (the stories of domestic violence are conflicted), and, in classic noir form, nets him an ocean of trouble that he attempts to cover up, essentially becoming exactly like the townspeople, a blood-handed hollow man hiding his dirty secrets from the world. By the time the shots ring out in earnest, Hansen has no moral ground left to stand on, and the town closes in for real.
Shot with a damp palette that might’ve given the Danish Tourist Bureau a rash, “Terribly Happy” creates a convincing but farcical little universe — the town plays like a muddy, moonshine-sickened version of the burg in “Local Hero,” complete with whimsical traffic hazards and never-explicated mystery relationships.
The noir stakes are far higher, of course — we never truly find out the true extent of iniquity buried in that bog. But true to its Coen DNA, the clockwork turning of the plot nudges us to laugh at things that aren’t funny, except they are, because we’re not that hapless schmuck doing precisely the thing he shouldn’t do in the exactly the wrong town.