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Movie Review

Terribly Happy

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Terribly Happy
How noir is "Terribly Happy"? So noir that when the cigarette-smoking blonde with sex in her eyes explains where the bicycle-shop clerk ran off to, she says, "He just disappeared, the way people disappear around here. I'd better not say any more." She then shuts up and skedaddles. That, friends, is pretty damn noir—just like the rest of "Terribly Happy," a brisk ride from director Henrik Ruben Genz. Folks in Denmark liked it enough to make it their selection for the Academy Awards' best foreign language film category, and there's little reason to argue with the Danes over their choice.

The story kicks off with Robert (Jakob Cedergren)—a buttoned-down, mustached cop— being escorted to his new post as sole lawman in a sleepy, hinterland cow town. The locals soon introduce themselves and let Robert know they have their own way of doing things—a way that has little to do with calling headquarters and a lot to do with tossing troublemakers into the nearby bog. When the aforementioned blonde, Ingerlise (Lene Marie Christensen), takes a shine to Robert, her husband, Jørgen (Kim Bodnia)—the kind of guy who wears a cowboy hat and breaks other people's bones for fun—articulates his feelings on the subject. Things, as they do in such situations, escalate.

Genz gives his actors a backdrop to work against that should be familiar to most Yankees. The Danish countryside of "Terribly Happy" may as well be the American Midwest of "Fargo," its flat landscape and slate-gray sky empty, hopeless, dread-inducing. But Cedergren lays out a far more straightforward story than anything the Coens would create. It's the story of a new sheriff in town, one who intends to follow the rules, local temptations be damned. As things get started, Robert is such a square that when Ingelise leans in to kiss him for the first time, he takes her by the shoulders and halts her advance. "No," he says. "That's not by the book."

But Robert didn't always play things by the book, and it's not long before the town brings out the darkness in him. In an unsubtle, super-linear film, Cedergren's performance is the only thing that develops slowly. He plays Robert's transformation from good cop to bad less like a fall from grace than like a falling away of pretenses. Cedergren's cast mates have their fun, too, as the hayseeds and weirdoes that populate any rural gothic. Christensen's Ingerlise is as sexy and unnerving as you could ask for, though Bodnia too often plays Jørgen laid-back when he should be menacing the bejesus out of everyone. Lars Brygmann steals a few scenes as the damp-browed, bug-eyed town quack.

Genz, who co-wrote the screenplay with Dunja Gry Jensen, packs two and a half hours of story into 102 minutes, which is why his film feels most of all like a successful piece of entertainment. He wields his story techniques with precision and shows a gift for pacing that his American peers should envy. But his tale—a principled cop finds himself in an unprincipled place and must play by his own set of rules—is as old as its setting. He unearths nothing new in the retelling.


Genre: Drama. Directed by: Henrik Ruben Genz.
Written by: Henrik Ruben Genz, Dunja Gry Jensen.
Starring: Jakob Cedergren, Lene Maria Christensen, Kim Bodnia, Lars Brygmann.

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