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HAPPINESS(director/writer: Todd Solondz; cinematographer: Maryse Alberti; editor: Alan Oxman; cast: Dylan Baker (Bill Maplewood), Jane Adams (Joy), Philip Seymour Hoffman (Allen), Cynthia Stevenson (Trish Maplewood), Lara Flynn Boyle (Helen Jordan), Jared Harris (Vlad), Rufus Read (Billy Maplewood), Ben Gazzara (Lenny Jordan), Louise Lasser (Mona Jordan), Camryn Manheim (Kristina); Runtime: 139; Good Machine/Killer; 1998)
Happiness is not a film about happiness, but what is imagined as making one happy.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

“Happiness” is not a film about happiness, but what is imagined as making one happy. For the film’s director, Solondz, no one can stay happy in a world where sadness is the more prevalent emotional state. That’s the theme of this dark comedy, meant to shock and antagonize. It is a film that features a pedophile rapist (Dylan), a murderer (Camyrn), an obscene caller (Hoffman), a masturbator (Read), a Russian immigrant thief (Jared), and an assortment of losers and lonely people wrapped up in their egotism. Solondz’s morbid sense of humor turns to New Jersey’s suburbs to explore the depravity of the human race.

This film refuses to compromise on its plot or who should be cast (Solondz refused the studio’s offer to cast the pedophile with a noted star such as William Hurt because he felt Dylan was just right for the role). “Happiness” is meant for an art house audience, one that is able, as difficult as it may be, to see something in themselves in the characters portrayed. I would wonder about anyone who could sit through this film and not be disturbed by it. That would just defeat the film’s purpose. The audience I saw this film with were mostly Williams College students and faculty, and they laughed openly and freely at the parts that had an edge. Where Solondz was going for the laugh, it was because he pushed the button as far as he wanted to go with a certain character and to return to the intensely grim psychological mood of the story he had to release some humorous energy or have the film drown in its own murky waters. The laughter was appropriate, and even “hip.” It felt right to see this with an audience that still felt the need to be entertained when they go to the movies and it didn’t seem to matter if the laughter came about from the cruel humor it evoked, causing people to react as a group rather than individually. I found that most people in the audience appeared to be nervously silent; and, there was at no time just one person alone laughing (but the best part, is that only one person walked out of the theater and no one hissed).

“Happiness”is a difficult picture to watch, there are no good guys or gals. In order for us to accept them, one has to accept that their problems stem from their relations with their parents. Their miserable parents are played by Gazzara and Lasser (they don’t love each other and are not happy; he has given up on everything, including getting a divorce; she feels a need to cling to this loveless marriage, no matter what).

The sisters all suffer from ego-centredness, and it takes an audience with a modicum of sympathy for each of them to get past all their vices. Each one only pretends to be interested in another.

Jane Adams plays Joy, who is anything but joyous as she cries through most of the film, having no luck at finding the right job or man. Trish (Cynthia) is the oldest and seemingly the most content of the sisters, parroting all the facile virtues of Middle-America dogma, living out the American Dream with her three wonderful kids and successful psychologist husband (Dylan). He is gentle and understanding, but hides from her the fact that he is a pedophile. It is also interesting that he only tells his analyst the dreams he wants to tell, seemingly to satisfy the analyst and not damage his career. He neglects to tell the analyst his true sexual feelings, as Solondz closes the door for any of his characters to get the help they need.

Lara Flynn Boyle plays Helen, the successful author, who can’t stand who she is. She is so full of herself, constantly harping to her sisters how she has been with so many good looking men and is never lonely but only complains that she just has too much to do. She is, also, materially very well-off and condescending to her sisters. This illusion of her good life is shattered when an obscene caller, a nerdy computer guy, Hoffman, turns her on with one of his calls and she makes a date with him even after he hangs up on her. But he is apparently afraid of her too willing response to his proposition, so their relationship fizzles out. By chance he is also undergoing analysis with Dylan, so you know what kind of help he is getting for his problems!

The most poignant and unflinching scenes are between the accused pedophile father and his son (Read). Dylan is superb in his role. He honestly counsels his 11-year-old son about masturbation and later on, he has the difficult task of telling his son that he drugged and raped his son’s friend and then raped one of his other friends and would do it again because he can’t control himself. I could understand people being upset with this character, as he is given a forum to tell us what he is about. But as difficult as it is to feel anything but contempt for him, we at least see what this type of person looks like up close. No other film, to my knowledge, has done this so thoroughly and so humanely. Lang’s M, with Peter Lorre, does to a certain degree, but Lang’s film was different in nature, and just touched bases with the internal problems presented here. Lang never pushed the sexual perversion of his killer to the front of the film and into the face of the audience. His was mostly a noir crime story, while Solondz’s film centers on exploring one’s disturbing emotional states.

This is a very solid film that is well-acted, that is understandably not for everyone. Yet because it takes risks on subjects that are tabu; and, even though, some of the risks seemed contrived and not a part of the natural story line, this is still a powerful film. It is one deserving of attention and intelligent critique, deserving of thanks from those of us who welcome a true effort for the sake of art, even if the art has to sink into the mud to have its story told. Many filmmakers have approached the subject of happiness by tacking on a happy ending to their films. That is not the case with this film, obviously.

Happiness” leaves you little choice: you can take this film as morbid and amusing as it is, or you can ignore it, or you can find no one in it that you feel some sort of compassion for and therefore come to hate it. I came close to loving it, while not exactly loving it, mainly because there were too many scenes that left me with mixed feelings and messages. But close to loving it, means I liked it a lot for its honesty to subject matter. I did, however, think that these characters went too far in their morbid portrayals for me to relate to them without either feeling sorry for them or despising them.


Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”