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Margarita Happy Hour
Review written by: Alex Sandell

"Margaritas and nachos every day, we each
have a kid, and none of us have gained a 
single pound!  Who says this film doesn't 
have any special effects?!?"

If the year was 1975, I wouldn't need to review this film, 14 months after it first lit up a movie screen, because everyone would have already seen it, it would have just wrapped up its sold out run in packed theaters across the country, and would currently be considered the front-runner for Best Picture at the 48th Annual Academy Awards.  Alas, it's 2002, the 74th Annual Academy Awards have just ended, giving top honors to yet another marginal Hollywood movie, and 431 days after making a huge splash with critics at the 2001 Sundance Film Festival, Margarita Happy Hour has managed to make its way onto one screen in New York City for its opening weekend.  At the same time, Ice Age, a mundane piece of animated mediocrity, laid claim to 3,345 screens across North America, added 30,056,721 dollars to its already gargantuan gross, and left me scratching my head while asking myself, "what the fuck went wrong, here?"  Margarita Happy Hour is a film that should not be passed up by theaters across the country for a corny cartoon full of subtle conservative propaganda.  

With Margarita Happy Hour, Writer/Director, Ilya Chaiken has drawn from her own personal experiences as an artistic single mother living in Brooklyn, and in the process created a live action film that is, ironically enough, far more animated than FOX's blundering CGI disaster.  Chaiken, like Woody Allen, Martin Scorsese or, at the very least, Edward Burns before her, uses the city of New York as a character.  Like Allen, Burns, and Scorsese, it is obvious that Chaiken went to great lengths to create characters believable, conflicted and authentic enough to be worthy of the great city that they reside in.  At the same time, she brings something entirely unique to the production by spinning the trying tale of life, love and loneliness in Brooklyn, from a female perspective.  

Misogynists need not worry that the film's feminine slant is myopic to the point of bogging itself down by focusing entirely on a group of chatty women male-bashing over drinks, like Sex and the City, an HBO series Margarita Happy Hour is oftentimes unfairly compared to, does.  Ilya Chaiken focuses on a lot more than just the trials and tribulations of a group of chicks from New York.   By covering so many bases, and doing such a damn good job at fleshing out each of her characters, male and female alike, Chaiken has fashioned one of those rare films that seems as though it was written for no one, but somehow manages to convince almost everyone that it was put on the screen, just for them.   Like a beautiful poem, or wonderful song, this movie somehow ends up feeling as though it's yours.  You start rooting for the characters, because you're actually rooting for yourself, a family member, or a close friend.   

I found myself really wanting Natali (Holly Ramos), the character I most closely identified with in the film, to find her place in the world, to get out of the loop that she was stuck in.  I felt great empathy for what she was going through, partially due to the fact that the life she was leading on screen seemed so close to the one that I am living off it.  Like Natali, who died and was revived from a drug overdose, was nostalgic for her partying days, I long for the happier, more carefree life that was left behind when I had my first seizure.  

A lump grew in my throat whenever I'd see Natali wandering sober and aimlessly at a party, feeling completely out of place the entire night, only to wake up the next day and sit at home alone, while the happy hour gang, one that she used to be a part of, met for margaritas while their kids had tea-parties under the table.  Natali was the only one left of the group that didn't have a child, and was, sadly, the only one who initially wanted one.  Her roommate, Zelda, and Zelda's "mommy friends," all of whom seemed to forget, with exception to Zelda, that Natali was even alive (in one heart-wrenching scene the Margarita gang makes it over to Zelda's place, and ends up being more interested in Zelda's old clothing, than they are in Natali, who is sitting on the couch next to them, completely ignored), only making her feel all the more empty inside.  Both her past life and future life had ostensibly abandoned her, and she couldn't seem to find one for the present.  I hated how much I could identify with Natali's feelings of not fitting in, but was thrilled to see a film that was tangible enough to hold a mirror up to my face in the way Margarita Happy Hour did. 

Even though Natali was the character who, in my mind, best held up the mirror, she wasn't the only one featured in the film who was left bemused and beleaguered while caught in that horrible place somewhere between youth and middle-age.  Zelda was also lost there.  Her friends, the majority of the happy hour gang, had finally accepted the inevitable and were about to sacrifice old dreams for a new reality.  They were going to make a break from Brooklyn, to a nice country home, and raise their children away from the parties, drugs, and rock and roll they had grown accustomed to, and tired of.   Only Zelda, and her married semi-friend, Raquel (Amanda Vogel) would be left behind.   Raquel didn't seem to have a problem with this, being happily married with a diamond on her finger, and busy trying to find a way to get her child an expensive MRI, without any health insurance.  Zelda, on the other hand, was stuck with her poet boyfriend, Max Bender (Larry Fessenden) who was unable, or unwilling, to move from the city and give up his bohemian dreams.  To add insult to injury, Max, although deeply in love with his daughter, was becoming increasingly bitter toward Zelda for keeping her.   

If there is a "bad guy" in the picture, Max would be it, but I couldn't help but feel sympathy for his plight.  Before his daughter, Little Z (Jonah Leland, one of the cutest toddlers ever put onto film), came into the world, it was just Zelda and Max.  The two dreamed of visiting exotic lands (and Las Vegas), remaining forever young, and accomplishing all of their ambitious goals.  Instead, Zelda was now consumed with raising Little Z, and when she needed a break, she usually took it with her happy hour friends, rather than with Max.  In the meantime, Max was essentially forced to put everything he had strived for on hold, to work a shitty job that had nothing going for it, other than giving him really long breaks, which he used to get himself a little tipsy, beat up a bicyclist, or two, and then slam down some coffee before returning to work.

As her boyfriend Max was busy beating up bicyclists, Zelda was becoming more and more torn between him, his hot temper, and her friends.  She didn't want to pick favorites, or remove anyone that she loved from her life, but she knew she was being pushed, against her will, into that ghastly place in the world where it's either your friends or your lover.  Adding to her frustration was the fact that Zelda herself wasn't quite ready to give up her dreams of being a freelance illustrator, especially now that she had finally gotten her art published.  Sure, it was merely drawings of nude women with huge breasts stuck somewhere in the pages of a porno 'zine, but it was something.  Zelda repeatedly said that she was going to stay in Brooklyn, but never with much confidence, and the more Max did to prove that he would never grow into a responsible father, the less confident she became.  Finally, a few life-altering things profoundly impacted her, and she was forced to decide whether or not Brooklyn, Max, and the entire art scene, was the best thing for her, and, more importantly, her child.    

The fairly predictable finale was one of two weak points in the film.  Toward the end, things went in exactly the direction I expected them to, and everything was slightly too convenient to be entirely believable.  That being said, this movie was light years beyond what most films can manage in this day and age, when it comes to exploring the human condition.  It was a labor of love for the devoted cast and crew, and the effort they put in really shows on the screen.  The talent involved breathed life into celluloid, conjuring up a world so convincing, the final product was a truly invigorating thing for this jaded film critic to see.  And that's what brings me to the only other problem with this film; it ended too early.  I wanted to know more about these characters, I wanted to see if things worked out for them.  And, to be honest, I wanted to have a three-way with Zelda and one or two of the other happy hour girls, but that's a whole 'nother kind of review, all together.   

So, will mainstream America be as affected by this film as I was?  I really think that, if the film manages to get itself out to them, they probably would.  Although Margarita Happy Hour is a different kind of movie than the mass public has grown accustomed to, I think that it's involving enough that people could relearn all that they have forgotten in regards to what makes a great film.  I don't see how, in the era of overwrought FX puke like Tomb Raider and The Time Machine, a genuinely character driven, fresh and surprisingly heartfelt motion picture wouldn't be a welcome change from the norm (and I love big FX films as much as the next guy, when they actually work).  

A lot of people, including myself, have longed for the return of true independent cinema for what seems like ages, and with Margarita Happy Hour, we finally get it.  Now, if only Ice Age would stop hogging up all of the screens, and let this movie find its audience, so it can be the rebirth of personal cinema, rather than the swan song of a lost era. 

On a scale of 1-10?


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Text (Copyright) 2002 Alex Sandell [All Rights Reserved].

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