The Austin Chronicle


Not rated, 137 min. Directed by Todd Solondz. Starring Jane Adams, Dylan Baker, Lara Flynn Boyle, Ben Gazzara, Jared Harris, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Louise Lasser, Camryn Manheim, Rufus, Cynthia Stevenson, Elizabeth Ashley, Jon Lovitz, Marla Maples.

REVIEWED By Marjorie Baumgarten, Fri., Oct. 23, 1998

Let it be said that there is no mistaking Todd Solondz's movies for anyone else's. This follow-up to Welcome to the Dollhouse, his 1996 Sundance grand prize winner that used a geeky junior high-schooler's painful adolescence to push the audience's personal boundaries of what is considered humorous and comfortably empathetic into new uncharted realms, has done it again. Happiness, a corrosively funny yet emotionally devastating look at that elusive thing that all Americans presume to be their right (as in “life, liberty, and the pursuit of…”), is another journey into the ironic heart of darkness, the dark center of being that can't roll over and internalize society's “Don't worry, be happy” blandishments. Don't worry if you haven't found happiness; it will eventually find you, it's right around the corner, all you need is the right map. Happiness finds us all at the crossroads, compass in one hand and thumb stuck out with the other, desperate to hitch a ride with anything that moves through the gridlock. Often that means we settle for the veneer of happiness, and for Solondz these surface trappings take the form of sex, romance, and the inauthenticity of the suburban dream. Happiness is structured episodically as it loosely follows key events in the lives of three New Jersey sisters, their parents in Florida, and their neighbors, acquaintances, and loved ones. The key events all involve sex and the agonies it brings. Helen (Boyle) is the sister whose success as an author brings her social and professional popularity but exacerbates her self-loathing and sense of phoniness; the misnamed Joy (Adams) is the sister whose 30-year string of disappointments in love and career do not extinguish her abiding hope for romantic and professional fulfillment. Trish (Stevenson) is the happily married homemaker who “has it all” and whose self-delusions are painfully unmasked when her mild-mannered and sensitive husband Bill (Baker) is exposed as a gay pedophile who has raped two of his 11-year-old son's classmates. This, of course, is the storyline that has aroused the most controversy, particularly in light of the publicity surrounding the film's abandonment by its original distributor October Films, which was forced to renege on its distribution deal by its wary parent company Universal. In true Solondz fashion, we have come to feel sympathy for this character who commits the most heinous of actions. The movie's cornerstone sequences are the frank, comforting, and strangely icky conversations Bill has with his son (Read) who is worried about such pubescent issues as penis size and ejaculation. These conversations provide the fodder for the movie's glorious penultimate joke as well as perhaps its most upsetting moment as the son sheds tears of rejection when he learns that his father would not molest him. At two hours and 20 minutes, Happiness rambles a bit too much, particularly in its last third, but the strength of these characters is undeniable. There are the parents (Gazzara and Lasser) in Boca Raton whose marriage is sputtering to a bored demise, the chubby obscene phone caller Allen (Hoffman) who is fixated on the unattainable Helen, the fat girl (Manheim) down the hall who is fixated on Allen and maybe also the male body parts she has squirreled away in her freezer as evidence of a crime, and Joy's ex-boyfriend (Lovitz) and her new hope -- a Russian émigré thief (Harris). Happiness is creepy, funny, mordant, and disturbing, an edgy work which embraces discomfort as the flip of movie escapism. With There's Something About Mary, Happiness helps mark 1998 as the breakthrough year of the cum shot in mainstream films. Happiness also fits nicely with our contemporary political landscape that suggests that everyone has dirty secrets lurking behind their placid public exteriors. Happiness, in all irony, may be the beast within.

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