Just how far can Josh Radnor’s charm get him? Pretty far, it turns out. The How I Met Your Mother star’s writing-directing debut, Happythankyoumoreplease, is flawed and sorely tests the limits of Radnor’s artfully stubbled affability, but he very nearly gets away with it.
Radnor also stars in his upbeat meaning-of-life rom-com (the title is something of a mantra), and he smartly surrounds himself with a sharp group of young actors. Zoe Kazan and Pablo Schreiber play long-term lovers figuring out the next move; Malin Ackerman is a New Agey oddball neurotic with alopecia; and the luminous Kate Mara is the young waitress-cabaret singer (with the unfortunate name of Mississippi) whom Radnor’s character Sam is obsessed with. Sam is an unsuccessful New York writer, and though Mississippi never quite buys what Sam is selling, their physical attraction feels real.
Zoom out, and the film plays like a series of lite self-help meet-cutes, or a good-looking game of WWOD (What Would Oprah Do?). Zoom in, though, and scenes — some of them so contrived they should never, ever work — really click thanks to the cast’s considerable appeal and some surprisingly taut rom-com dialogue: “I’m not going to sleep with you,” Mississippi tells Sam. “That’s defeatist,” he replies. “You can do anything you set your mind to.”
In a positive write-up from Sundance last year, I wrote that it often felt like Radnor was skipping stones across deeper waters. On second viewing, this holds true. The film skims over some sticky issues — most egregiously in a whopper of a manipulative subplot, in which Sam takes home a black kid, separated from his foster caretaker, whom he finds on the subway. “Sensitive white guy learns life lessons by taking in black child,” Sam’s friend says. Nodding to a hoary plot device doesn’t excuse it.
Happythankyoumoreplease has all the hallmarks of an ego-tripping vanity project, and yet it doesn’t feel as self-aggrandizing as, say, Zach Braff’s Garden State. The look and feel of the film is unpretentious and warm — more of a comfy Polish diner than a twee hipster café. Sam writes books about characters who are neither one thing nor the other: “just kind of, kind of … ” And Radnor’s directed a film that feels like this, too, for better and worse.
There’s a line in the middle of Sam and Mississippi’s courtship: “I was impressive once, I’m telling you,” says Sam. “Parent teacher conferences back in the day — I was unstoppable.” He’s talking about the plight of the golden boy: The charming protagonist who gets away with so much (even child abduction) that a less-blessed man would never pull off. Sam ends up a little lost because he doesn’t know how to make hard choices. I wonder if that’s Radnor’s problem, too. To his credit, you don’t feel like he’s overreaching, but Happythankyoumoreplease never feels terribly urgent either.