Swearing on screen is not something one generally thinks much about, in the era of censor-less streaming and premium cable, unless the swearing is either particularly creative (as in, say, HBO’s Veep) or necessarily compulsive (as in, say, The Wolf of Wall Street). In general, though, it’s not something that should stand out, because it’s purpose is quite the opposite—to take us further into the reality and truth of the characters doing the swearing. As with writing, if I use the word “fuck” in a sentence, it should be for a reason—the vitriolic jolt of that expletive should alert you to something especially bothersome or ridiculous or awful or whatever. But if I fucking use the fucking word “fuck” every other fucking word, well, then it becomes superfluous. It loses its meaning. You’d probably think I was just trying hard to sound cool, like a 10-year-old who only recently learned how to swear.
Happy Anniversary, a new Netflix rom-com from screenwriter Jared Stern (The Internship, The Watch) is an otherwise clever movie with a serious fucking problem. One half of its central couple, Sam (Ben Schwartz), cannot stop saying the F-word, in all its variations and intonations, to such a ludicrous degree that it actually pulls the viewer out of the film: why, one might ask, is this dude swearing like he’s in Goodfellas?
The movie unfolds over the course of one day in the life of Sam and his girlfriend, Mollie (Noël Wells, playing a similarly approachable hot-cool girl as she does in Master of None). It’s their three-year anniversary. Sam has prepared breakfast in bed, but as the two proceed to have sex, Mollie announces, coyly, that she’s not happy. To which Sam says: “Your feelings are fucking bullshit. You get off on being unhappy when everything is fucking fine.”
If this seems like a little much for someone who professedly loves his girlfriend, yes, it is. Sam’s emotions throttle up and down from 0 to 60 far too frequently, although, rather than treat these swings as comic, Stern does the opposite: he seems to think real drama—Sam’s disappointment, his heartbreak—requires Big Fucking Feelings.
This would be tiresome if not for the film’s structure, which features flashbacks prompted by Sam and Mollie’s analysis of their relationship up to this point, as they go about their day post-quasi-breakup—Sam, with his friend and business partner, Ed (Rahul Kohli), and Mollie with her cancer-stricken father (Joe Pantoliano, in a thankless role).
In the first flashback, Sam approaches Mollie at a bar, hoping she’d be his “internet date” (she’s not). Their badinage is clever enough, if not a bit trite; it’s easy to see why screenwriters rely on the “let’s look around and think up stories for strangers” gambit—it’s such a writerly exercise—but at this point, there must be a more original way to communicate “relatable coolness” to the audience. The flashbacks also serve to explicate their relationship in pretty stark terms. He thinks of the bad times; she thinks of the good. One is used to show his irritating indecisiveness; another to reveal her bossiness. They’re not not fun, but they tend to turn the characters into types.
It’s a shame, too, because Happy Anniversary has a genuinely affecting rom-com ending, in part because its subject is one not often explored in the genre: whether a great, yet imperfect love can ever be good enough, and the pragmatic flip-side to that alchemical “one.”
In fact, the stasis of once-happy, stalled-out couples is typically the stuff of drama. I couldn’t help but compare this movie, thematically and structurally, to Derek Cianfrance’s Blue Valentine—a quiet tour-de-force that nonetheless also used flashbacks to imbue the present with a certain fall-from-grace gravity. Obviously, Stern was not trying to make Blue Valentine, and to compare the two is grossly unfair. But it’s still instructive: Cianfrance gave his characters, played by Ryan Gosling and Michelle Williams, a surfeit of space (they literally lived together for a month), whereas Stern confines his into the neat little character-types written in the script. Blue Valentine oozes raw realism, and it’s tragic; Happy Anniversary tries so hard to seem real and raw—hence, the incessant swearing, a backfiring, overcompensating attempt to write a character who talks like an actual person—that it just ends up ringing false.