Directed by Todd Solondz
Cast: Jane Adams, Dylan Baker, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Lara Flynn Boyle, Cynthia Stevenson, Camryn Manheim, Louise Lasser, Ben Gazzara, Rufus Read, Jared Harris, Elizabeth Ashley, Jon Lovitz, Marla Maples, Anne Bobby, Molly Shannon.
1998 140 minutes
Rated: [NR] (by the MPAA standards, the equivalent of NC-17 for profanity, violence, brief sex, masturbation, nudity, and disturbing subject matter).
Reviewed by Dustin Putman, April 29, 1999.
Note: This review may include elements that are possible spoilers; if you haven't seen the film yet, and plan to, read with caution.
Acclaimed independent director Todd Solondz is not, and I repeat not, a fluke. Since making the criminally overlooked 1989 gem, "Fear, Anxiety, and Depression" and the brilliant, uncompromising 1996 "Welcome to the Dollhouse," Solondz has proven that he has a very distinct and on-the-mark way of coming up with original characters set against the backdrop of dire, seriously downbeat stories, and then, somehow, is able to make them funny. Not a one-liner sort of funny, but the sort of funny that comes from wonderously accurate situations in which comedy naturally shines through, even as we are suffering along with the people on-screen. Solondz's latest film, "Happiness," which is now available on video and DVD after a controversial but much-heralded run in theaters (its original distributor, Universal, dropped the film after being scared off with the dark subject matter, only for the indie company, Good Machine Productions, to graciously snap it up). And after finally seeing the film, I have two comments concerning this: (1) words fail me to think that Universal can snub this masterful piece of work, but then release such "award winners" as the horror joke-fest, "Bride of Chucky," and the schmaltzy, embarrassingly sentimental, "Patch Adams"; and (2) why exactly did this film recieve an initial NC-17 rating, only to drop it and go unrated? Sure, the material that is dealt with reaches into the darkest depths of human nature, but not even a miniscule second of it is in any way exploitative, and the two infamous ejaculation scenes aren't even as graphically displayed as in 1998's R-rated box-office hit, "There's Something About Mary." I guess since "...Mary" reached for the lowest-common-denominator, while "Happiness" dealt with its characters and situations truthfully, the MPAA didn't know how to react to something so intelligent.
In true Altmanesque style, a 'la "Nashville" and "Short Cuts," "Happiness" interweaves several different stories together into a perfectly-woven tapestry that is admittedly quite ironic, since the title of the film is the farthest possible feeling away that any of the miserable characters presented here could be. The picture centers on three New Jersey-based sisters and the people around them, all of which have their definite problems and eccentricities. Joy Jordan (Jane Adams) is the youngest of the three, a recently-turned thirty-year-old who still lives at her parent's home, writes songs and plays the guitar in her spare time, seems destined to get involved in loser guys, and is told early on by her sister, Trish (Cynthia Stevenson), that everyone always thought she would be a failure. Trish, the oldest sister, is a joyful housewife and mother of three who naively does not know that her psychiatrist husband, Bill Maplewood (Dylan Baker), is secretly a pedophile who often buys children's magazines to get off on them and seems to be headed down a path of destruction. And finally, the third sister, Helen (Lara Flynn Boyle), is a much-admired writer who is growing bored of her artificial and aimless relationships with men and believes that her own writing is terrible. Two of her poems, entitled "Rape at 11" and "Rape at 12," lead her to ultimately wish that she had been raped as a child, simply so she could be authentic. Helen becomes intrigued one day when she recieves an anonymous obscene phone call that is actually coming from her nerdy, insecure, and overweight neighbor, Allen (Philip Seymour Hoffman), who randomly chooses numbers in the phone book and calls the women up, only to spit out sexual and verbal threats upon them.
As you can already see, the peoples' lives that inhabit "Happiness" certainly aren't made up of sugar and spice and everything nice, and many of the depressed or unusual characters haven't even been mentioned, including the Jordan sisters' parents, Mona and Lenny (Louise Lasser and Ben Gazzara), who are getting separated after forty years of marriage; Bill and Trish's 11-year-old son, Billy (Rufus Read), who has recently become concerned that he hasn't been able to "cum" yet; another neighbor of Allen's, Kristina (Camryn Manheim), an obese, lonely woman who is harboring a dark secret of her own concerning the death of the apartment buiding's doorman; an angry possible suitor (Jon Lovitz) of Joy's who practically snaps her in half with crushingly mean-spirited words after she breaks up with him; and another one of Joy's troubled romances, Vlad (Jared Harris), who is a Russian taxi driver and thief.
Todd Solondz's "Happiness" is one of the most startlingly courageous and assured films of 1998, a movie that takes these wide variety of off-centered character, all of which could have easily been transformed into caricatures, but instead, treats them honestly and openly as (severely) flawed, but strangely likable human beings, some of which you may find yourself surprisingly sharing characteristics with as the film presses on. "Happiness" is filled to bursting with incredibly harsh and painful emotions, but as is standard with Solondz, much of it is downright hilarious as well, and intentionally so. It wouldn't be too great of a shock to actually find youself ashamed at almost inexplicably laughing at certain very human situations, as well as the characters themselves. After only three films, it is obvious that Solondz is one of the masters of flawlessly intermingling both pitch-black comedy and heartbreaking drama, sometimes at the very same moment.
Because of the fine line the film is constantly walking on between realism and ludicrousness, it was vital that the screenplay, by Solondz, and the many performances not be merely adequate, and they aren't. The writing is particularly effective because of the facile way that it moves from one group of characters to the next, and then back again, all the while constantly coming up with fresh, stirring, humorous, and devastating situations. In the one previously mentioned scene that is obviously so emotionally damaging for Joy, Trish tells her the truth about how everyone feels negatively about her path in life, foolishly unaware that words really do hurt.
In the acting department, "Happiness" has acquired several well-known actors (but not overly so) as well as some first-timers in a starring role. Jane Adams, whom has previously been seen in such small roles as 1995's "Father of the Bride II" and 1998's "Music From Another Room," is the one truly kind character, as Joy, and Adams brings out all of her appropriate emotions, including the confusion that she feels for what she wants to do in her life. Joy loves playing the guitar and writing songs, but is hesitant to show them to anyone, and moves from one job (as a telephone operator) to another (a teacher for distrusting foreign refugees!). One very funny scene, due to the so-genuine-it's-scary way that the characters react, occurs when another worker at the telephone job dies, but when she tells one of her co-workers (Molly Shannon) all about him, a budding conversation erupts around the office as everyone else tries to figure out who he was, even though he worked with all of them for a whole year.
As Trish, Stevenson is perfect as the unsuspecting wife and mother who "has it all," even though she is clueless to her husband's very serious and criminal problem. In perhaps the best performance in the film, Dylan Baker is remarkable and sincere as the chronic child-molesting Bill, and what is even more astounding is how much we are able to sympathize and care about him, even after we watch him in one disturbing, nerve-racking scene, drug his whole family and his son's playmate at a sleepover, just so he can have his way with the young child. The brutally honest relationship between Bill and his son, Billy, is also highly confounding, since they are able to speak to each other with such unabashed frankness, and about the most personal things imaginable.
Philip Seymour Hoffman is amusing as the rather pathetic and shy Allen, as his main hobby, we find, is simply making obscene phone calls. Clearly, he has terminally low self-esteem, so when he finally rings up Helen who, in response, calls him back with *69 and tells him to call her again some other time, he doesn't know how to respond. His blossoming romance with his neighbor, Kristina, is one of the more touching elements in the film. As played poignantly by Camryn Manheim (TV's "The Practice"), Kristina keeps coming over to talk to Allen because she likes him, but he thoughtlessly ignores her, even though she is exactly what he has been looking for all along: a loving, caring relationship.
Also of special notice is Lara Flynn Boyle as the third sister, Helen. Boyle has always been an actress I've kept my eye on, and she deserves more challenging and satisfying work, such as this film. Louise Lasser is a hoot as the sisters' aging mother, a sarcastic, precarious woman who, in one of the funniest scenes, spots her husband's possible mistress walking down the street and immediately begins to aim her car right for her, only to pull out of it at the last minute and wave to her as she passes by. Jon Lovitz also makes quite an impression in the attention-getting opening scene, especially since he is playing someone so unlike any other character I've seen him portray.
Although it's almost foolish to compare such two recently great films, "Happiness" does not quite reach the overall height of Solondz's masterpiece, "Welcome to the Dollhouse," but nor should it have to. With this latest motion picture, Solondz has taken a gigantic risk, and with so many characters, it's inevitable that a few moments would feel marginally uneven. At a sizable running time of 140 minutes, the film is never, ever boring and the time flies by. If Solondz had failed with this film, it would have been damaging to his career because of the many chances that are taken, but he grandly succeeds in almost everything he has set out to do. Yes, most of the characters are outlandish, at times dangerous, people that you wouldn't really want to meet, but what Solondz has done is taken these extreme characters to bring us a portrait of lonely, seemingly meaningless lives that most likely stand for our own. No one in "Happiness" is actually happy, but they persistently strive to be just that. God, don't we all?
©1999 by Dustin Putman