Happiness, by the independent artist Todd Solondz (Welcome to the Dollhouse), is a sobering and devastating comedy — yes, comedy — about such things as loneliness, despair, murder, and pedophilic rape. Not necessarily in that order. Solondz doesn’t make the ha-ha-funny, sitcom-level comedies most people are comfortable with. His humor, indeed, arises from intense discomfort. When a sweaty, flabby loser is spitting sexual taunts into his phone, or when a pedophile is having a calm, candid talk with his curious 11-year-old son about erections, you laugh in disbelief; the laughter is quickly choked off.

The movie is a series of interconnected anecdotes dealing with a group of mostly well-off New Jersey suburbanites. There are three sisters: the chic, disdainful writer Helen (Lara Flynn Boyle), the smug wife and mother Trish (Cynthia Stevenson), and the rather lost and unambitious Joy (Jane Adams) — all, of course, miserable in their own ways. Helen, for instance, feels like a phony for getting praise she doesn’t think she deserves; she and Trish (whose buried hostility comes out in odd, passive-aggressive bursts) look at their less successful sister Joy with pity. Joy, who bounces from job to job and boyfriend to boyfriend, is a delicate-natured woman — the type who will always search for something or someone to cling to.

Trish’s husband Bill (Dylan Baker) is a psychiatrist with a placid and precise demeanor; you feel that everything about him is manicured. That façade conceals a deep and uncontrollable fixation: he buys teeny-bopper magazines and whacks off in his car to the photos of young boys. Soon enough, he’s planning to rape one of his own son’s friends. This pedophile storyline, which has gotten all the attention, is overall one of the most disturbing things I’ve seen in a movie — in no small part because Solondz doesn’t let us stand apart from Bill and judge him. In a sequence that redefines “horror,” Bill puts drugs in a young boy’s tuna-salad sandwich, plotting to rape the boy once he passes out. Solondz’ control, and Dylan Baker’s phenomenally detailed performance, are such that when the boy initially tells Bill he doesn’t want the sandwich, we actually feel a twinge of defeat along with Bill.

It would be easy to close ourselves off from Bill, and from everyone else in Happiness, including sad, heavy Allen (Philip Seymour Hoffman), one of Bill’s patients, who makes obscene phone calls to random women. Or Kristina (Camryn Manheim), Allen’s lonely neighbor, who one-ups Allen’s outrages and then some. But Solondz asks us to do something more difficult, which most Americans are not prepared to do — we’re programmed to cluck and finger-point at anything we find morally reprehensible. It’s more instructive, and in the end more fulfilling, to allow ourselves to understand (if not condone) horrible actions and the compulsions that drive them.

Solondz’ previous film, Welcome to the Dollhouse, was a deadpan study of the hell that is junior high; Happiness is heavier and darker and much more daring, a quality reflected by the independent distributor October Films’ frightened decision to pass on the film (pressured by its parent studio Universal). Taking a page from Solondz himself, I don’t condone this decision, but I understand it: Happiness is tough stuff — quietly confrontational, genuinely haunting, and, most disturbing of all, unexpectedly moving. When Bill is honest for the last time with his 11-year-old son, telling him what he did and why, Happiness gets so deep under your skin that you’ll spend a week trying to work through your feelings about Bill — and everyone else in this great and searing movie.

Explore posts in the same categories: art-house, comedy, drama, one of the year's best

One Comment on “Happiness”

  1. […] than despairing, Life During Wartime, Todd Solondz’ follow-up to his controversial 1998 gem Happiness, tracks its people through a haze of regret and trauma. The movie uses many of the same characters […]

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