- Marisa Tomei ... Ruby Weaver
- Vincent D'Onofrio ... Sam Deed
- Nadia Dajani ... Gretchen
- Holland Taylor ... The Therapist
- Tovah Feldshuh ... Lillian Weaver
- Sean Gullette ... Mark
Written, directed, and edited by Brad Anderson (Next Stop Wonderland, The Machinist, Transsiberian). Cinematography by Terry Stacey (P.S. I Love You). Released by IFC Films on Jan. 25, 2000 (Sundance) and Aug. 24, 2001 (general). Rated R.
Ruby (Marisa Tomei) has a problem with men: she keeps finding damaged guys and tries to fix them, always at the cost of what she wants for herself. Just when she's making progress with her therapist (Holland Taylor), along comes Sam (Vincent D'Onofrio), a sweet and goofy stranger who chats her up on a park bench while doodling on sketch pad and quickly becomes part of her life.
Sam seems pretty normal and sane at first, though there's the occasional oddity -- like his intense fear of small dogs. When Sam tells her that he's actually from four hundred years in the future, Ruby starts to break things off. But with the help of her best friend Gretchen (Nadia Dajani), she decides to treat this quirk as role playing and decides to stay on the ride.
As they get to know each other better, Ruby finds herself falling for Sam -- which makes discovering that the photos in his wallet are fakes cut from picture frame placeholders, and the name Chrystie Delancey scrawled over and over in his sketch pad, all the more upsetting. Her therapist tells her that she's enabling him and would be better off without him. But her mother, trapped in a once-wild, now-dull marriage, suggests that a safe and sane lover may not always be best.
Finally Sam reveals he has been lying to her -- the real reason he came back in time was to escape an unjust murder accusation, but he chose this time because he had read about her accidental death and decided to prevent it. The trouble is, the "causal chain" is almost impossible to break -- and when the fatal day comes Ruby's still not sure what to believe.
Romantic Comedy with Sci-Fi
Science fiction movies are almost always "about" the sci-fi. Sure, there's a love story in Star Wars, but it's not the core of the movie (and it turns out to be a red herring). Blade Runner, The Matrix, same thing: the romance is secondary to the sci-fi dilemma; and a lot of sci-fi movies don't have much romance at all. Even in the previous entry in this category, 12:01, the romance between Jonathan Silverman and Helen Slater is mainly the motivation for Silverman's character to solve the sci-fi problem that threatens both his love and his life.
So it's refreshing to encounter a film like Happy Accidents: a romantic comedy with a dose of sci-fi. The central question of Happy Accidents isn't really whether Sam is from the future or not; the question is whether Ruby can overcome her doubts and trust him. This is one of those stories that can end cryptically without providing definite proof of Sam's story -- after all, you're in Ruby's boat, and true love involves faith as well as trust.
Because it's a comedy, Sam's revelations about the future vary from silly (most people in his future are androgynous "clone dupes" made in the Philippines) to wry ("Religion goes out of favor in 2037 when science discovers the gene that regulates fear," Sam says). The lack of small dogs (and indeed all pets, as well as vegetables) unnerves him in his first encounter with mom (Tovah Feldshuh, of course: this was the period when she alternated with Lainie Kazan in the worldly-but-sage mom roles), and his lack of experience with alcohol and marijuana derails a couple of social gatherings.
This is Tomei's movie to make or break, and she carries it pretty well. It's funny that she's worried about Sam's sanity, because here again Tomei proves there's few better at the increasingly unhinged girlfriend role. (Though my experience of her in this movie was colored by memories of her delightful descent to crazy in What Women Want).
The main problem with Tomei's character is not her performance but the way it's written: she veers back and forth between trust and mistrust so often, and with such increasing amplitude, that it seems like she should be slamming against the walls of her railroad New York apartment by the end of the film. There are just too many reversals, not all of them clearly motivated.
In contrast, D'Onofrio is able to give a more measured and nuanced performance, gradually revealing more of himself to Ruby and to us. Sam is really just a regular guy: his own relative past is sad and lonely (his parents were dissidents and his sister died tragically), and D'Onofrio is able to progress from a question mark to a real person with ease.
The real treat of the film is Holland Taylor (who was in writer-director Brad Anderson's previous film, Next Stop Wonderland, as well as providing gem cameos in everything from Legally Blonde and George of the Jungle to The Practice and Two and a Half Men -- though my first association is still her fabulous role in Bosom Buddies -- and the rather less successful Tea Leoni series The Naked Truth). Taylor does her usual cool sarcasm but gets to bang out an angry confrontation as well, a nice bonus.
New York Indie Charm
Happy Accidents is a New York indie project and takes advantage of its downtown locations. Like Trick, which had the same cinematographer, and dozens of other indie films from around the turn of the century, lower Manhattan is used as a backdrop that makes it feel somehow like an off-Broadway stage, a well-worn but lovely and alive context for well-grounded characters experiencing life changes. The exteriors match the interiors: Ruby's apartment looks like her apartment, if still a bit pricey for a directory assistance operator. (Fortunately things are relative: judging by her gorgeous Central Park views, Holland Taylor's therapist must be doing very well for herself.)
Happy Accidents is not a perfect film, but it has a great deal of charm, a lot of fun moments, and some inventive construction (the chronology of Ruby's experiences are unfolded slightly out of order, and Ruby's relating of Sam's stories of his own past are related using cutouts and slo-mo of stills of the two leads). The best part of it was that I hadn't encountered this film before I rented it randomly on iTunes, so my serendipitous discovery was itself a happy accident.