Spend Happy Hour with LaPaglia and friends

Every drunk has an excuse. Tulley, the main character in Mike Bencivenga’s “Happy Hour,” is no exception. He is a once-promising but now-blocked writer, who is reduced to editing bad copy for an advertising agency.

To make matters worse, Tulley’s father is a best-selling author. It’s enough to drive a man to drink.

Anthony LaPaglia plays Tulley and his award-winning performance is just one of the reasons to seek out this small but impressive effort by Bencivenga, an Emmy-winning television director and theater and sketch comedy veteran.

Tulley, teamed with his best friend and sidekick, Levine (Eric Stoltz), parties and drinks away his nights in Manhattan. One evening, he meets Natalie (Caroleen Feeney), a strong-willed schoolteacher, at the happy hour at his local watering hole, and the three become inseparable from then on. Veteran actor Robert Vaughn plays Tulley Sr.

Though Tulley and Natalie’s first encounter crackles with the witty banter that is a hallmark of this tragicomic tale, it is chiefly through conversation with Levine that Natalie learns of the depth of Tulley’s addiction to drink, of his inability to heal the psychic chasm left by his disapproving, famous father and of his reluctance to share the little writing he has had published.

“I had this idea for a story about what I saw happening around me at the end of the ’80s.” says Richard Levine, who wrote the original story. “It seemed like there were no ideals anymore. The only thing that mattered to most people was making money. I wanted to write about somebody who hadn’t gotten caught up in that Wall Street, money-grubbing lifestyle … That’s where the main character, Tulley, came from.”

The script, on the one hand, is filled with humor, but at its heart, involves serious, even tragic events.

“These people are very smart, very funny, but they’re a little screwy,” Stoltz says. “The three of them really love each other very much, but aren’t quite sure how to express it.”

LaPaglia likens the film’s wit to that of a classic 1940s urbane comedy, which often involved “really heavy stuff being lightened by zany jokes and humor.”

Probably best known now for his super-serious Jack Malone on CBS’ “Without a Trace,” LaPaglia also won an Emmy for his hilarious portrayal of Daphne’s drunken brother, Simon, on “Frasier.”

LaPaglia “wasn’t my first choice, he wasn’t my last choice,” Bencivenga told a preview audience, “but when I met him, he was the only choice.” LaPaglia had worked with Stoltz before and passed the script along to him. The relative unknown in the group is Feeney, but she shouldn’t be unknown for long. She easily holds her own with these two acting heavyweights.

Because the three all had extensive theater experience and rehearsed, rehearsed and then rehearsed again before filming began, Bencivenga was able to shoot “Happy Hour” in only three-and-a half weeks. Not that it was easy.

Bencivenga described shooting one scene outside Tulley’s apartment building:

“We set the whole thing up and then a three-alarm fire started right around the corner. So for 25 minutes there were fire trucks blasting. Vaughn kept saying, ‘What do you want me to do?’”

Bencivenga told him, “When you hear a siren, don’t talk. When it stops, say a line.”

“Are you kidding me?” Vaughn asked.

Bencivenga replied, “Who do you think I am? Cecil B. DeMille? I can’t stop the fire trucks. There’s a building burning down over there. You’re the Man from UNCLE. Go fix it. Pull something out of your lapel!”

“Happy Hour” triumphs over such inconveniences and other limitations of the small budget and, in fact, shared a Prism Award, which honors realistic depiction of addiction, with “21 Grams.” LaPaglia also won an award for his performance.

“I’m essentially an entertainer but I believe if you can bring something else forward, [you should],” Bencivenga said. “I guess the moral question is don’t stand by and see someone destroy themselves. Speak up at the risk of losing those relationships.”

The author can be reached at crummel@pww.org.