Happiness (United States, 1998)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

Anyone who saw Todd Solondz's breakthrough feature film, Welcome to the Dollhouse, has the kernel of an idea about what to expect from the director's latest effort, the ironically-titled Happiness. Welcome to the Dollhouse is a dark comedy that takes an uncompromising look at the life of a socially unpopular adolescent girl. The film's hallmark is that it does not romanticize the lead character - she is as unpleasant as her tormentors. And, although the movie is a grim experience, it offers plenty of laughs, many of which are mean spirited. Watching Happiness is much the same kind of undergoing, only more intense. Consider Dollhouse the appetizer to Happiness' entree.

Happiness is an ensemble piece, much like Robert Altman's Nashville. Depending on how you categorize them, there are about five different stories, all of which intersect from time to time as they revolve around the three Jordan sisters. Trish (Cynthia Stevenson), the oldest, is apparently living the American dream: she has a beautiful house, a loving husband, and three children. Helen (Lara Flynn Boyle), a successful author, leads a life of wealth and glamour. Joy (Jane Adams), on the other hand, is lonely and alone, and the only men she attracts turn out to be losers, cheats, and degenerates. Trish and Helen both pay lip service to their concern for Joy, but, in reality, they're so wrapped up in their own lives that they could care less. Self-centeredness is the chief characteristic of nearly everyone in this film.

Helen feels that she's a fraud, and, tired of empty nights of sex with good-looking men, she's in search of something adventurous. She finds it through Allen (Philip Seymour Hoffman), a repressed computer geek who derives sexual fulfillment from making obscene phone calls. When he dials Helen's number and berates her, she is aroused by the experience, and uses *69 to call him back after he hangs up. However, the more Helen becomes turned on by this impersonal interaction, the less Allen enjoys it, until he eventually unplugs his phone and turns to a relationship with a neighbor (Camryn Manheim) who loves him but hates sex.

Meanwhile, Trish's marriage hides a dark secret, although she isn't aware of it. Her proper and caring psychiatrist husband, Bill (Dylan Baker), is a pedophile, and, while he presents the facade of the perfect family man, his obsession is always lurking just beneath the surface. For a while, he is content with masturbating to pictures of good-looking teen idols, but, when the opportunity presents itself, he drugs and rapes the best friend of his adolescent son. With the genie out of the bottle, there is no stopping him.

Finally, there's Lenny and Mona (Ben Gazzara and Louise Lasser), the retired parents of Joy, Trish, and Helen. After 40 years of marriage, Lenny decides that he needs to be alone. He doesn't want a divorce, but he craves "more space." However, despite going through all the motions - getting lawyers, looking at new places to live, etc. - the two don't seem in any hurry to actually separate. Mona clings to the marriage like a lifeline, but Lenny doesn't care one way or the other. He no longer loves his wife or anyone else. In fact, he seems to have lost the capacity for all feeling, including self-pity.

Solondz's overriding message is that true happiness is a myth. There is no such thing. Some are pragmatic enough to accept that fact and live with it. Others delude themselves into believing that it might be possible, only to be slapped down when faced with the truth. In Happiness, the disconsolate Joy is no less cheerful than the perfectly-married Trish or the financially-assured Helen. It's a bleak view of the human condition, but Solondz is not the first director to take this road. David Lynch has journeyed down the same path for years, showing the ugliness that exists when one digs beneath the shell of normalcy. The most significant difference is that Solondz does it with less contempt for his characters and more humor than Lynch.

One of the great strengths of Happiness is that we experience empathy for the kind of people we would ordinarily feel uncomfortable about identifying with on any level. Solondz offers a sympathetic portrayal of a pedophile, a murderer, and other assorted misanthropes. Traditionally, movies present these individuals as evil monsters, and there's something unsettling about viewing them as human beings. Bill, for example, is not a villain through-and-through. While his rape of two boys is reprehensible, he is also shown to be a caring father and loving husband who is tormented by his inability to control his impulses.

Happiness has a deserved reputation for trailing controversy in its wake. It did so at both the Cannes Film Festival (where it won the International Critics Prize) and the Toronto International Film Festival (where it took the Metro Media Prize). In addition, the movie's initial distributor, Universal Pictures (through October Films, their independent outlet), dropped all rights when CEO Ron Meyer made the statement that he didn't want to understand the mind of a pedophile and wasn't interested in having his company involved in the release of a film that attempts to present that perspective.

Of course, there's a lot more than pedophilia going on in this movie, but that's the issue most likely to push buttons. There's no debating that Happiness is a disturbing and difficult motion picture, but it's not as shocking as the advance word suggests. There's nothing in this film that hasn't been shown before. The language and nudity are no more graphic than in any of a dozen mainstream features released every year. The most potentially offensive visual element is no worse than a segment from There's Something about Mary. The key here is that, for the most part, Solondz is interested in exploring sexual deviancy, not exploiting it. Perhaps the thing that will most upset audiences is that the characters are so well-drawn that many viewers will see an element of themselves in the personality of one (or more) of Happiness' protagonists. And who wants to be identified with these people, even if just tangentially?

Admittedly, there are times when the director goes overboard. Most of those instances occur through ill-advised attempts to elicit laughter, nervous or otherwise. Humor in this sort of film works best when it's a natural outgrowth of the characters and their bizarre situations. From time- to-time, however, Solondz's forays into comedy are forced and inappropriate. The jokes are funny, but they sometimes seem to belong in an altogether different motion picture.

Technically, the film is not a masterpiece. The music is clever and ironic, but the cinematography is bland. Where Happiness shines, however, is in the series of extraordinary performances given by the members of the diverse ensemble cast. Leading the group is Dylan Baker, whose turn as Bill is astounding. His character's inner struggle is constantly played out on the actor's face. It's a difficult, subtle approach that, in the hands of a less adept performer, could have resulted in an unpleasant caricature. There's a little of Peter Lorre's child killer from M in Bill, and we end up having the same confused feelings of sadness for and anger towards him. It's interesting to note that Solondz resisted pressure to cast Tim Robbins, William Hurt, or Bill Pullman in this role, recognizing that no one could do it better than Baker.

Jane Adams, an actress with a number of bit parts on her resume, makes the most of her first significant feature role. Playing the only likable major character in the film, Adams gives a heartbreaking rendering of a despondent individual. The other standout performer is Philip Seymour Hoffman, a character actor who has had roles in Twister and Next Stop, Wonderland. Hoffman plays Happiness' biggest loser - a computer geek who is terrified around women. Hoffman's portrayal is right on the mark, from the heavy breathing to the uncertain body language. Ex-Twin Peakser Lara Flynn Boyle, veteran Ben Gazzara, Cynthia Stevenson, and Jared Harris all contribute solid work.

It took me more than one viewing of Happiness and a lot of thought to clarify my feelings about this movie. One thing is for certain: Happiness is not for everyone, and it isn't the kind of motion picture that would thrive in a multiplex. Along with the likes of In the Realm of the Senses; The Cook, the Thief, His Wife, and Her Lover; and Kissed, this is one of the most difficult films I have ever reviewed. Other critics and film makers have been similarly confounded. John Waters (director of Pink Flamingos and the recent Pecker) has lavished praise upon Solondz and Happiness. The Farrelly Brothers (There's Something about Mary), on the other hand, were quoted in the New York Times Magazine as calling the picture "sick." Audience reaction for this audacious experiment will be no less divided. Love it or hate it, however, Happiness is not easily forgotten.

Happiness (United States, 1998)

Ranked #5 in Berardinelli's Top 10 of 1998
Run Time: 2:12
U.S. Release Date: 1998-10-16
MPAA Rating: "NR" (Profanity, Sexual Situations, Nudity)
Genre: DRAMA
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1