No. 32: “Happiness” (1998)

“I wake up happy, feeling good … but then I get very depressed because I’m living in reality.” ~~Bill Maplewood

When you think about it, there aren’t that many kinds of happiness. How different, really, is one upbeat, bouncing happy person from another? They aren’t. The reasons for happiness vary, naturally, but happiness itself, as a state of being, is … indistinct, generic. Miserable people, on the other hand, are like snowflakes. There are thousands, probably millions, of ways to be unhappy. In essence, happiness makes us common; misery makes us unique.

Such is the way that director Todd Solondz, an odd, dark little man with an odd, dark little vision, sees the world, and such is the way he paints that world in “Happiness,” an ensemble drama so uncomfortably funny that it belongs in a class of its own. Contrary to the film’s title (is that sarcasm, Mr. Solondz?), none of the people in this world are happy. “Happiness,” set in New Jersey, is a veritable geyser of melancholy. Everyone deals with that unhappiness in different ways. Some, like smug stay-at-home mom Trish (the perpetually overlooked comedic genuis Cynthia Stevenson) and her aimless sister Joy (Jane Adams), labor so hard to project an air of contentment that they almost fool themselves. Others, like shy loser Allen (Philip Seymour Hoffman) and Trish’s husband Bill (the phenomenal Dylan Baker), funnel their sadness into juvenile, illegal and immoral hobbies. And some, like Trish’s mom Mona (Louise Lasser), watching her marriage dissentegrate, just weep to the lady at the condo rental office, who tells Mona “divorce is the best thing that ever happened to me.” Coming from a lithe, blue-eyed blonde with up-to-there legs, that’s almost insulting.

On and on the misery merry-go-round goes. You’ve got to wait your turn to hop on; this ride is full. Trish’s sisters Joy (Jane Adams), a broke wannabe musician, and Helen (Lara Flynn Boyle), a successful author who kept her New Jersey apartment because she loves “living in a state of irony,” find themselves grasping at relief — usually in the form of any male attention — from the tedium of life. Their father Lenny (Ben Gazzara) has 86’d his 40-year marriage to Mona because he “needs space”; for what he’s not quite sure, since he’s “in love with no one.” One of the saddest characters of all is Kristina (Camryn Manheim), Allen’s frumpy neighbor who finds him in a drunken stupor and resorts to caressing his face to get human contact. There’s an elegant sadness to this scene, the kind that threatens to knot up in your stomach, because we know Kristina. She works with us or rides the subway with us or lives in our building.

Right. So the rotten core of “Happiness” has been established. Why should anyone pick up this strange and disturbing film, let alone weather the full 140 minutes of loneliness and rejection and repressed anger? That all depends on the viewer’s threshold for boundary-pushing subject matter. Solondz’s treatment of children, for example, is questionable. They are not respected or treated with particular kindness; to be blunt, they are objects passed around by adults, used as needed and then discarded rather cruelly, or dismissed altogether. The toughest subplot involves Bill’s growing inability to repress his pedophilia, then a truly shocking, core-rocking scene where he hatches a plot to give in to his urges. Solondz does not write him as a monster but as a man held hostage by his perverse desires. Baker plays him as such, proving he has the talent to do the unthinkable: humanize a pedophile.

Solondz takes similar risks in his grimly comic script (if you like your humor icky/grim), like crafting a joltingly honest sex talk between Bill and son Timmy (Justin Elvin) or Helen admitting that she’s “so tired of being admired all the time.” Solondz makes no bones about the fact that his film is a shock-and-awe campaign, that he will not capsule-up this bitter pill to make it go down smoother. This makes him an uncommon director who’s either reprehensible or commendable for refusing to water down his vision. Question his morals if you want, but you can’t question his gumption. He takes chances few others touch.

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