We all want that birthday to remember, until a certain age, then we just want to forget that ever growing number. Casey Tebo, successful music video director, seemingly has quite a few memorable stories to tell given his feature debut, Happy Birthday- a thriller of a couple of privileged white dudes looking to run amuck in Mexico till things take a serious turn for the worse. Tebo's debut often gets bogged down in it's self-gratifying storytelling, thinly veiled commentary on racism and awkward sexism. All that being said, once you power through the initial gag reflex that comes from swallowing those aforementioned bitter pills Happy Birthday is a whole lot of fun.
Sure, it's tough to ask people to look beyond some of the misguided womanizing and aggressively abrasive characters, but it's the stuff you simply can't talk about in a review that makes one do a double take on Tebo's film and come back around, wait a beat and start a slow clap. As one starts to jot down thoughts on the first two-thirds and outline the direction of a review then watch as the last act unfolds the delete button might start falling off the keyboard. Happy Birthday's ending invites an immediate re-examination of the previous hour. It doesn't necessarily forgive some of the faults in filmmaking, but invites an interesting meta filter in which to view the material.
Tebo's protagonists are a tough pair to get behind. Brady (Matt Bush) is a whiny wimp crying over a recent breakup, but also oddly unsympathetic in spite of his misfortune. Tommy (Riley Litman) is Brady's reckless alpha-male friend with no filter on his constantly running mouth. Both are Hollywood creative types, which subconsciously might be why they feel so unsympathetic as characters. Tommy's introduction has him turning down a job directing a Gremlins reboot by pitching it as racist commentary against white people- that's the level of self-satisfying dialogue that litters the first half and carries into the finale, but with a better grasp on what Tebo was after. It's the supporting cast that steals the show, though. Whether it's Erik Palladino's smooth talking Texican, Matthew Willig's intimidating and goofy sidekick turn as El Caballo, or Aerosmith's Steven Tyler as a drugged up foul-mouthed shaman- all are infinitely watchable in their roles and underused in the films soft midsection.
The filmmaking style utilized by Tebo is decidedly stylish and unsurprising from an accomplished music video director. At the same time, it often feels like someone has spent to much time lauding and replicating the works of Mr. Tarantino. However, Happy Birthday never quite hits the same highs in terms of writing or in its shock value, but instead earns something a little more genuine in the long run as opposed to simply being homage. In the end Tebo delivers a product that impresses in spite of itself- an experience with potential to shake up friendships and violently tear apart once happy households.
Happy Birthday is a debut flick that flies high on its own stash. However bad the initial trip initially seems, when it comes down the sensation falls just short of euphoric. Like anything in life, it's not for everyone and many will strongly disapprove, but as annoyingly smug as it sounds...don't knock it till you try it- or in this case, watch it.