‘Welcome to Happiness’: Dances with Films Review

Nick Offerman, Keegan-Michael Key and Frances Conroy provide supporting turns in a drama that hinges on magical twists.

Writer-director Oliver Thompson gambles with genre in his first feature, a dramatic fantasy that mixes kids-fare whimsy and grown-up angst. It’s a combination that starts out intriguing and grows increasingly clunky. The presence of well-known actors in the supporting cast will likely spark future engagements for Welcome to Happiness, which received its Los Angeles premiere at Dances With Films. But likable performers and novel storyline notwithstanding, the comic drama stumbles, leaving audiences with unsatisfying answers to its magic-tinged mystery.

At the center of the story is a young writer who guards a portal between two worlds. Children’s book author Woody Ward (Kyle Gallner) apparently agreed to an unusual clause in his apartment rental agreement with landlord Moses (Nick Offerman). At the back of one of his closets, a door opens to a place that offers healing and renewal to selected individuals of the distraught persuasion. They show up on Woody’s doorstep, their arrival signaled when a dot-matrix printer gets cranking with questions tailored to each happiness-seeking applicant. Another qualifying test — and a nice element of the fanciful visual scheme — involves a seemingly ordinary rock that changes colors.

The Bottom Line

Playful but not winning

Though he’s helped many strangers gain entry to a land of second chances, Woody has never seen what’s on the other side of the door. As he struggles with writer’s block, faces an angry and impatient agent (Paget Brewster) and hits a snag in his nascent romance with a neighbor (Olivia Thirlby), he grows resentful of his exclusion from the mystical club.

Thompson’s screenplay doesn’t stint on inventiveness as he entwines heartache and abracadabra. A despondent painter (Brendan Sexton III) and lonely collector (Josh Brener), brought together by a rare sports trading card, are destined to affect Woody’s life. Pulling the strings that tie everyone together is the cartoonishly goofy benefactor Proctor (Keegan-Michael Key) and his gentle co-conspirator, a figure of pre-Raphaelite sunniness named Lillian (Molly C. Quinn).

Exaggerated in different ways, many of the characters — Proctor and Lillian especially, as well as a couple of friendly interrogators well played by Frances Conroy and Robert Pike Daniel — are figures straight out of a picture book. That sense of make-believe, an apt echo of the main character’s profession, is reinforced by Jessyca Bluwal’s brightly hued costumes and the surreal interiors by production designer Patrick Thompson.

At the same time, Thompson delves into the dark emotional territory where options appear depleted. His ambitiously unorthodox slant on the subject promises something richer than the bland New Age celebration that subs for a satisfying revelation. While the plot’s puzzle pieces ultimately fit together all too snugly, the intended emotional payoff never jells.

Production companies: Minutehand Pictures, Q Prods.
Cast: Kyle Gallner, Olivia Thirlby, Brendan Sexton III, Josh Brener, Molly C. Quinn, Paget Brewster, Frances Conroy, Nick Offerman, Keegan-Michael Key, Robert Pike Daniel, Bess Rous, A.J. Trauth
Director-Screenwriter: Oliver Thompson
Producers: Bay Dariz, Kyle Gallner, Molly C. Quinn, Oliver Thompson
Director of photography: Justin Talley
Production designer: Patrick Thompson
Costume designer: Jessyca Bluwal
Editor: Oliver Thompson
Composer: Oliver Thompson
Casting director: Lauren Grey

No rating, 109 minutes