Combustible Celluloid
Own it:
Get the Poster
Search for streaming:
NetflixHuluGoogle PlayGooglePlayCan I
With: Philip Seymour Hoffman, Jane Adams, Dylan Baker, Lara Flynn Boyle, Ben Gazzara, Louise Lasser, Cynthia Stevenson, Camryn Manheim, Elizabeth Ashley, Jon Lovitz
Written by: Todd Solondz
Directed by: Todd Solondz
MPAA Rating: NR
Running Time: 139
Date: 05/15/1998

Happiness (1998)

3 1/2 Stars (out of 4)


By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Writer/director Todd Solondz may be one of the most disturbed individuals out there. Thank God he's making movies instead of obscene phone calls. His 1996 critical hit Welcome to the Dollhouse was a direct channeling of adolescent fears, anguish, and pain. Solondz goes even farther in his new movie, Happiness. The movie shows us a family: three grown sisters, a mother, and a father, and their lives together and apart from each other.

The first scene has the youngest sister, the pallid, ironically named, Joy (Jane Adams), on a date with Andy (Jon Lovitz). The first several shots are of the two confused faces, not knowing what to say to each other. There are stutters, starts, and stops. Finally we realize that Andy is being dumped. Andy viciously and humorously turns his misfortune into a victory. Lack of communication and its horrid results becomes our theme.

Next, Allen (Philip Seymour Hoffman) swears to his shrink that he's going to talk to his beautiful neighbor, Helen (Lara Flynn Boyle), the second sister. But all he can do is wheeze and grunt "howz it goin'" and "see ya." Helen is a successful writer and Allen, it turns out, is an obscene phone caller. Allen calls her, and is surprised when she gets turned on and wants to meet him. On another random call (he goes through the phone book page by page), Allen reaches Joy. Joy mistakes him for a blind date that Helen has set her up with, and says all the right things to him until he climaxes. (If you thought the "hair gel" scene in There's Something About Mary was gross, there are SEVERAL... uh... "hair gel" scenes in Happiness.)

Allen eventually gives up on Helen, and goes out with Kristina (Camryn Manheim), his overweight neighbor who has a crush on him and problems of her own. Later, they lie down in bed together, her under the covers, him above, facing opposite directions, indicating the beginning of another non-communicative relationship.

The third sister is Trish (Cynthia Stevenson, who is perfect in her role), a housewife putting on a good show of happiness. Her husband, Bill (Dylan Baker) is by far the most disturbing and compelling character in the movie, a serial child molester, disguised as the perfect suburban dad. In one scene, Bill wakes up in the middle of the night, racked with guilt. He whispers to Trish, "I'm sick." She sleepily murmurs to him to take an aspirin.

The idea of a child molester may sound sick, and it is, but the dry-as-dirt tone of the movie, and the goofy, everything-is-perfect musical score (by Robbie Kondor) allows us distance enough to laugh. (What else can you do?) Bill is a psychiatrist who goes so far as to drug his wife and kids in order to have his way with a young boy who is sleeping over at their house. (Thankfully, the rape scenes are not shown.) As an actor, Baker occupies the role with a quiet, eerie control. There's no way one can LIKE a child molester, but Baker becomes interesting enough to allow us to tolerate him.

Meanwhile, the elderly parents, played by Ben Gazzara and Louise Lasser, are splitting up. Gazzara only seems interested in golfing, but even that becomes sour. One day on the course, another old geezer interrupts his game by dropping dead at the next hole over.

So why are we supposed to watch this collection of misfits and malcontents? The key is in the title, Happiness. The truth in this movie is that happiness lies through communication. These people are poor communicators, and yet they still crave, and strive for, happiness. Some don't know who to talk to, or how to talk at all. (Who do you go to when you're a murderer/obscene phone caller/child molester?)

The only two actual conversations in the movie take place between Bill, the child molester, and his 11-year old son. Early in the movie, the son asks brutally frank questions about sex, which Bill answers equally frankly. Later, when Bill has been exposed, the son again asks questions, each one becoming more and more frank. Although this exchange is painful, it's also truthful. It's like an explosion of fresh, bad-smelling air after everyone else's bottled-up feelings have left us stale.

Ultimately, the movie works because the message is simple, and somewhat buried in the flat, dry atmosphere, allowing us to meet it halfway. Like a circus freak show, we're drawn to these horrors, wondering how they could have let themselves fall so far, or how easily it could have happened to them. Although Happiness is a little too long and more than a little cruel, Solondz has created a fearless tapestry of human frailties and weaknesses that gets close to the truth. It's a powerful movie.

Movies Unlimtied