Adapted by celebrated literary figure Kurt Vonnegut Jr. from his own play, Happy Birthday, Wanda June is a laborious farce with elements of absurdity, social satire, and tragedy, tackling themes ranging from male ego to the pointlessness of big-game hunting. Yet Happy Birthday, Wanda June is more effective as a conversation piece than as an entertainment experience. The characterizations are silly, the integration of fantasy elements is awkward, and the tonal shifts feel unearned, as if Vonnegut meant to beguile audiences with rapid-fire jokes before sandbagging them with heaviosity about dead children, Nagasaki, suicide, and the Third Reich. There’s something admirable about the sheer audacity of the storyline, and Vonnegut was unquestionably a hip cat, but, man, this thing jumps all over the place. Rod Steiger’s shouty performance in the leading role doesn’t help, because while the main character was likely envisioned as having animalistic charm, Steiger can’t muster the complexity or gravitas of, say, a Sterling Hayden or a George C. Scott.
The picture is primarily set in the New York City apartment occupied by Penelope Ryan (Susannah York) and her young son, Paul (Steven Paul). Seven years ago, Penelope’s larger-than-life husband, big-game hunter Harold (Steiger), disappeared while on safari. He’s been presumed dead ever since. Nonetheless, Paul entertains fantasies of a homecoming, fetishizing all the animal heads and skins that decorate the Ryan household. One night, Harold returns, accompanied by his bizarre little friend Looseleaf Harper (William Hickey), one of the pilots responsible for dropping an A-bomb on Nagasaki, Japan. Much of the film concerns light romantic farce, since Penelope has moved on and is now courting two different men, whom Harold predictably berates and intimidates. Another thread concerns Paul’s change of attitude toward his father, from hero worship to something far less flattering. And then there’s the absurd stuff. The film regularly cuts to Heaven, where a little girl named Wanda June (Pamelyn Ferdin) cavorts with Nazis and other unlikely occupants of the afterlife. (This stuff more or less makes sense in context, but it’s too convoluted to explain here.)
Demonstrating his special skill for blending comedy and tragedy to create offbeat social commentary, Vonnegut writes Wanda as an upbeat ambassador for mortality who says that death was the best part of her life, or words to that effect. In some way that never quite connects, Wanda’s remarks are meant to complement copious amounts of dialogue exploring the nature of Harold’s big-game hunting. Imagine a lot of angst about killing for the sake of killing, and you’re headed down the right track. While most of the performances in Happy Birthday, Wanda June are energetic, York and costar George Grizzard strive to ground the goofy goings-on in some semblance of recognizable human emotion. Unfortunately, this creates dissonance: Is Happy Birthday, Wanda June a fever dream, or is it a realistic piece with exaggerated flourishes? Thanks to flat direction by Hollywood veteran Mark Robson, best known for action pictures and soapy melodramas, it’s hard to tell.
Happy Birthday, Wanda June: FUNKY