The filmmaking collective known as Sweaty Robot (Juan Cardarelli, Nick Gregorio, Ben Davidow, Matthew Sanchez, Eric Levy) write, direct and star in Happy Birthday, Harris Malden, but unlike other groups who’ve taken this route (Broken Lizard, Kids in the Hall, Monty Python), they’re less a sketch-comedy troupe (although they are known for comedic online short films) than a self-contained production company. For such a collaborative effort, Happy Birthday never comes off as disjointed or inconsistent, but anyone hoping for the absurd hilarity of the group’s aforementioned forebears may end up disappointed.
- Happy Birthday, Harris Malden
- Nick Gregorio, Eric Levy, Juan Cardarelli, Brigitte Hagerman
- Directed by Sweaty Robot
- Plays again June 16 at 7 p.m.
Rather than a laugh-out-loud comedy, Happy Birthday is more of a quirky character study, focused mainly on Paul (Levy), best friend to title character Harris (Gregorio). Paul, Harris and Harris’ brother Melvin (Cardarelli) are all in the 20s and all still live in the same Philadelphia neighborhood where they grew up—not that they’ve really grown up all that much. Paul, the most mature, still lives with his grandmother but has a stable job as an architect, a steady girlfriend and a vague plan to finally move out of the neighborhood.
Immature goof-off Melvin works apathetically at a discount retail store, but it’s Harris whose growth is the most stunted of all: Traumatized by a fire that killed his dad and left him scarred mentally and physically when he was five years old, Harris never leaves the confines of the few blocks surrounding his house, can’t even look at a flame and, in a gimmick both comedic and poignant, walks around constantly with a ridiculous mustache drawn on his face, since burns prevent him from growing facial hair.
It sounds far more disturbing than it is, as the Sweaty Robot guys downplay the more unpleasant implications (the incident itself is represented via cardboard cutouts during the opening credits) and instead use the goofy faux facial hair as a metaphor for Harris’ need to find closure and move on. The movie’s not quite serious enough to explore that issue thoroughly, and it’s not funny enough to work as a crazy comedy (a silly subplot about Melvin inexplicably becoming a model doesn’t work at all). Although Levy and Gregorio both give strong and even nuanced performances, Happy Birthday ends up stuck in an uncomfortable middle ground, both in tone and in overall quality.