Hollywood star Andie MacDowell doesn’t lose her fabulous head of perfectly graying curls in “My Happy Ending,” a story of cancer and friendship, but then again, this isn’t really a tale about disease and sickness.
It’s a parable about life and the choice of how to live it, mused Rona Tamir, the Israeli-born, Brooklyn-based screenwriter for the film who has written for Israel’s renowned satire programs “State of the Nation” and “Eretz Nehederet.”
“It’s about choice, about agency,” said Tamir. “Whatever life is unworthy for one, is paradise for another. It’s about life — friendship, relationships, what you want out of it.”
It’s also a female film, created by producers Talia Kleinhendler and Osnat Handelsman-Keren of Pie Films and directed by Tal Granit and Sharon Maimon and starring mostly women.
MacDowell plays actress Julia Roth, who strides into a small oncology day clinic outside London for chemotherapy, and while seeking privacy and anonymity given her familiar face, ends up meeting fellow patients who make her rethink her own life goals.
With a supporting cast of Miriam Margolyes, Sally Phillips, Rakhee Thakrar and Tamsin Greig, “My Happy Ending” takes the viewer on a quick ride through Roth’s life, with all the action taking place in the clinic and during just one day.
Drama queen Miriam Margoyles (Harry Potter’s Professor Sprout and many other roles) plays Judy Schwartz, an older Jewish woman, born in a concentration camp, who brings an honest stridency to her role. The always delightful Sally Phillips (Sharon ‘Shazza’ for Bridget Jones fans) plays Mickey, who can’t help but find pleasure and delight in life’s pursuits, while Rakhee Thakrar (EastEnders) plays Iman, a young Muslim mother and law student who is struggling to balance her busy life.
“Cancer is a catalyst,” said Tamir. “There’s no light without darkness, no good without evil. A lot of the meaning in life comes from [the fact] that we know it will end sometime, for even the healthiest person.”
Tamir has spent a lot of time thinking about the subject, as “My Happy Ending” is based on the Hebrew play “Sof Tov” by the late Anat Gov, the well-known Israeli playwright and wife of entertainer Gidi Gov.
Anat Gov died in 2012 of cancer and wrote “Sof Tov” (A Good Ending) for Israel’s Cameri Theater as a musical comedy about cancer and choosing one’s own happy ending. With music by Shlomi Shaban and a cancer treatment ward, the play channeled familiar Israeli characters and Gov’s own battle with colon cancer.
“Anat was a great philosopher of life, not of death,” said Tamir, who saw the play with her mother, long before the producers approached her about writing it as a film. “I remembered it very fondly, I loved it.”
Tamir said she spent two years as Gov’s posthumous apprentice of sorts, reading everything she ever wrote or said, and watching her last interview that was turned into a documentary.
“She was really such an inspiring, wise person, and it took me some time to write the screenplay,” said Tamir. “It did take some time to feel comfortable to do that, but hopefully if I did my job well, there’s now two pieces of art in the world about her work.”
There are major differences between the two works, of course. While “My Happy Ending” has the feel of a play, with a single setting of the oncology clinic and taking place over the course of one day, it’s not a musical like Gov’s “Sof Tov.”
“That’s the shtick of the play, it’s hilarious,” said Tamir, but she added that she knew that wouldn’t work in the film.
She replaced the musical numbers with fantasies that the four patients use to remove themselves from pain, augmented by guided imagery created in the filmmaking process.
“It was a way of peeking into the characters’ state of mind,” said Tamir.
And so, Judy Schwartz takes her friends on a hunt for a frog in a rainforest, Mickey celebrates at a Burning Man-like event and Iman invites them to her home, while Julia creates a feast of sugary carbs. Even so, their fears and worries penetrate each fantasy, bringing a shot of reality to the other-worldliness of the particular location.
The Julia Roth character, said Tamir, is a little bit like Dorothy in “The Wizard of Oz,” meeting three new friends, each of whom is teaching her a lesson. MacDowell reportedly took the role based on her love for Tamir’s script.
The film, shot in Wales during the coronavirus pandemic, also uses the English healthcare system to allow for Julia Roth’s choice to do treatment outside the US, and to mimic aspects of Israel’s socialized healthcare system, the setting for Gov’s play.
Having Andie MacDowell’s Hollywood star character walk into a small British clinic worked well, said Tamir, making her a “fish out of water” who has to make sense of her new reality.
“We’re all people underneath,” she said. “We all need our friends, in Timbuktu, Tel Aviv or Wales.”
Ultimately, however, the subject of cancer, loss and mortality are universal themes, and can work anywhere, added Tamir. And like Gov’s original play, it channels her belief (see the documentary trailer above) that death is an adventure, part of life, and one that needs to be greeted with clarity and humor.
“My Happy Ending” is playing at Cinema City theaters around Israel as of June 1.
As The Times of Israel’s political correspondent, I spend my days in the Knesset trenches, speaking with politicians and advisers to understand their plans, goals and motivations.
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