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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.

Screw the eggnog: Cheerless movies for the Season of Cheer

badsanta

Billy Bob Thornton isn't your average Saint Nick in the delightfully twisted "Bad Santa."

I know that Christmas is the time of good tidings and cheer, of wassailing and sleigh rides, of snowman building and eggnog, tree trimming and family togetherness and overall spectacularly warm-hearted merrymaking.

But so help me if I have to hear “Feliz Navidad” one more time I am going to have a meltdown of cataclysmic — no, make that Britney Spears — proportions. I will shave my own head, procure a few random tattoos and then do a press junket where I convince everyone I’m old and boring and, like, a TOTALLY fit guardian for two children.

Yes, you caught me — when it comes to the Season of Cheer, I am something of a grinch, a harbinger of bah humbug apathy. Perhaps I was born without the Christmas spirit, or maybe I had one once but I stopped feeding it, so it wandered away in search of sustenance.

(Don’t worry; I’m not a complete lost cause. A quick viewing of “Elf” or the claymation Rudolph/Abominable Snowman special whips me into a minor Xmas frenzy.)

So this year I figured I would run with this grinch-like spirit in the hopes that a few of you out there share my dilemma. Thus, I offer up a list of anti-Christmas movies — you know, the kind that leave you feeling sick, horribly depressed or dumbfounded and numb. If you’re in the mood to scare off any holiday merriment, play one of these at top volume:

* The Todd Solondz trilogy: “Welcome to the Dollhouse,” “Happiness,” “Storytelling” — Nobody makes better soul-killing films than Solondz, and this is the Holy Trinity for his fans. “Dollhouse” offers a brutally honest and painful glimpse at adolescence; “Happiness” is an ensemble drama about everyday people trying (and failing miserably) to find joy; and “Storytelling” offers up two cringe-with-laughter vignettes, one involving something resembling a professor/student date rape and the other about a family who learns too late what happens when you mistreat the hired help. My advice? Don’t watch all three in rapid succession unless you have a hearty supply of uppers — or at least a few dozen SSRIs — within arm’s reach.

* “Bad Santa” — OK, OK, you caught me. I threw in a Christmas movie, but only because “Bad Santa” gets my lusty, wholehearted vote for its gleeful and unapologetic lack of anything resembling warmth or Christmas cheer. Billy Bob Thornton delivers a dementedly clever performance as Willie T. Soke, a grumbling, last-stage alcoholic safecracker who poses as Santa to get access to store safes and rob them. “Miracle on 34th Street”? Please. Give me a movie about a Santa who gives plastic reindeer a beatdown and spends his lunch breaks diddling women in the plus-size dressing room any day.

* “The Pledge” — Somehow this bone-chilling, taut little thriller starring Jack Nicholson as a detective hunting a serial killer and Robin Wright Penn as a harried single mom slipped under everyone’s radar in 2001. No matter — those who saw it (including, of course, yours truly) never forgot the ominous tone and the make-your-skin-crawl final act. This film serves up the kind of resolution that’s twice as unnerving as it is comforting. Bonus: Benicio del Toro turns in a cameo that will haunt your dreams. Believe it.

* “Apartment Zero” — Here’s yet another first-rate pitch-black number very few people saw (to be fair, I found out about it through a fellow film buff). Set in the volatile political climate of 1980s Buenos Aires, this one stars Colin Firth as a nervous, antisocial theater owner who befriends a charismatic sociopath (Hart Bochner, who should have become wildly famous) who may be a ruthless hitman. The humor is so bracingly black it draws more nervous chuckles than laughter, and the final scene will freeze your blood. Prepare to lose some sleep.

* “House of Sand and Fog” — This quiet film plays out, scene for scene, like a Greek tragedy, or perhaps a grim retelling (or retooling) of what we consider the American Dream. Jennifer Connelly and Sir Ben Kingsley are note perfect as a recovering alcoholic who loses her house to a red-tape snafu and the determined immigrant who purchases it, free and clear, in an auction. The intersection of these two lives initiates pure chaos, sending both characters steamrolling toward an end so bleak it will have you reeling for weeks (trust me). Be careful with this one.

* “Mystic River” — As a director, Clint Eastwood has created near-flawless films that peek into the dark hearts of mankind. Apart from “Unforgiven,” it doesn’t get much darker or more disturbing than this adaptation of Dennis Lehane’s Boston crime thriller. The performances are astounding; in particular, watch Tim Robbins shrink himself inside and out to play Dave, a man whose demons are slowly and stealthily eating him alive. Sean Penn, too, is unforgettable as an ex-con hungry to avenge his teen-age daughter’s murder — and it’s that revenge that sets off a chain reaction of grim events that lead to soul-deadening conclusion.

* “Requiem for a Dream” — This adaptation of Hubert Selby Jr.’s dismal novel takes the top spot in this list because, quite simply, I have never — and probably will never — see another film that presents such an unrelentingly bleak (but realistic) view of drug addiction. Observe the addicts in question: There’s Sara (Ellen Burstyn, who was ROBBED of the Oscar by Julia Roberts), an overweight retiree hooked on speedy diet pills who watches as her son, Harry (Jared Leto), hocks her possessions for smack money. His friend Tyrone (Marlon Wayans) and girlfriend Marion (Jennifer Connelly) are smackheads, too, and before long every player in this drama realizes the particularly cruel paradox of addiction: When you can stop, you don’t want to, and when you want to stop, you can’t. Here’s a film guaranteed to leave you awestruck and, at the same time, completely, utterly numb.

*** HONORABLE MENTIONS ***

Thanks to some prodding by a reader (I won’t name names; you know who you are), I realized there was at least one movie I left off this list. Maybe that’s because I forgot it, but I suspect it might be because the movie was so wholly disturbing I’d blocked it from recent memory.

* “Mysterious Skin,” “Manic” — Oh, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, how far ye have come since “Third Rock from the Sun.” This former alien has blossomed into a first-rate dramatic actor, and these two films attest to that undeniable fact. In the first, he capably portrays a troubled teen who’d prefer to bury memories of a childhood trauma with RSEs (Random Sexual Encounters); in the second, JGL is downright frightening as a high school student with an anger management problem that lands him in the local psych ward. Don’t expect mindless happy endings; here are two indies that leave you with that sinking feeling (or is it nausea?) in your gut.

* “O” — Shakespeare buffs, please prepare yourself by putting away your quill pens; I warn you that you will not like what you are about to read. This powerful movie (shelved because of its controversial nature) gets my vote as the most creative and disturbing recreation of a Shakespearean play. Based loosely on “Othello,” this drama — set in a modern-day private Southern high school — does the Bard proud by digging deep into the issues that made his play so timeless: jealousy, greed, need for acceptance, trust, deception. The body count alone is unsettling, but it’s each character’s personal dissintegration (particularly Odin as played by Mekhi Phifer) that makes your head spin.

* “Heavenly Creatures” — Forget “Lord of the Rings.” Don’t even mention “King Kong.” Peter Jackson’s spooky project (based on the true story of two New Zealand teens involved in a brutal matricide) remains, in my mind, his definitive work. Thanks to Jackson’s free-wheeling directoral style (he employs creeptastic fantasy scenes) and outstanding acting by then-newcomer Kate Winslet and “Two and a Half Men’s” Melanie Linskey, this is one movie that digs its way into your subconscious and calls it home. If you don’t walk away profoundly disturbed, it’s too late to save you from the psychotic break that looms in your future.