Happiness banner

USA, 1998. Unrated. 134 minutes.

Cast: Jane Adams, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Dylan Baker, Lara Flynn Boyle, Jon Lovitz, Cythia Stevenson, Justin Elvin, Lila Glantzman-Leib, Gerry Becker, Rufus Read, Louise Lasser, Ben Gazzara, Camryn Manheim, Arthur J. Nascarella, Molly Shannon, Elizabeth Ashley
Writer: Todd Solondz
Music: Robbie Kondor, Eytan Mirsky (title song)
Cinematographer: Maryse Alberti
Producers: Ted Hope, Christine Vachon
Director: Todd Solondz


Grade: A Review by Dana Knowles

Note: Contains minor spoilers.

L et me start by saying that Happiness is a much better film than Todd Solondz' Welcome to the Dollhouse, although the latter is quite good. What impresses most in Happiness is the assurance of Solondz' vision. Regardless of whether you love or hate the content, this film is fully realized. It has a voice. Though it draws on the work of others (such as David Lynch), there is no sense that Solondz is aping the work of his predecessors. Happiness feels utterly like one man's vision.

Happiness has an almost perfectly-modulated tone. Solondz cranks the dial just off of the station a bit, to where there's that almost imperceptibe fringe of static. His presentation is straighforward, but everything is just slightly askew, as if the lense were twisted--except that the visuals are the total opposite of askew. The faces, the clothes, the homes, the offices, the children, the parents, the couples, the cabbie, the fat, the ugly, the plain, the pretty, the young, the old--they couldn't be more ordinary. They look just like real life. But it's somebody's dream-state real life, and the sense of alternate reality is palpable.

Happiness is the best kind of personal filmmaking. I don't have to love Solondz, or his characters, or his story, or his point of view, to be thankful that he wrestled them onto a screen. It's a trek inside his head, looking out through his eyes onto his world, which is our world, too. The view is fascinating.

Happiness has been compared to Blue Velvet, and I think it's a fair comparison because of Lynch's influence on Solondz and because both films are expressing the directors' very personal views, but I don't think this is at all a case of appropriation. The suburban milieu and the deliberate portrayal of the darkness that lurks beneath the surface of the "ordinary" may strike similar chords, but Happiness and Blue Velvet are very different films. Lynch's use of the surreal is overt and sensory, conveying his ideas through image and sound, often heightening the intensity of a moment to punctuate his thought. Lynch's world is overwhelming in its specificity; everything is realistic, but none of it seems real because he peppers it all with extremes of light and dark, beauty and ugliness, silence and noise.

Solondz's approach couldn't be more different. He lays back and lets the perversity of the ordinary speak for itself. His style is quiet and observatory. He rarely tells you what to think through his visual composition or mise en scene. He plays it straight, feigning realism in a vision more surreal than it ever lets on. It's a fairly still, quiet, and sparse film, and very claustrophobic.

Yeah, Happiness is filmed mostly in interiors. And yeah, there are a lot of close-ups. And yeah, it's mostly talking heads. But that's not what I mean by claustrophobic. I mean that we're too damned close to these people--as if we were standing and shaking hands with our noses touching. There is something astonishingly uncomfortable about that lack of space between them and us. It almost feels physical. Solondz relentlessly places us in this position. We never drop in on a character unless he or she is revealing things that we'd just rather not know.

In other words, Solondz gives us no mitigating scenes or moments. Some find this to be a problem. I think this is the film's finest trait. Because that's what its about. It is not about the fully realistic lives that are being led in scenes that never get shown. We are supposed to take those as a given. And it's not about showing a grand overview of human nature, so who cares if it doesn't include any "happy" people? What Happiness does seem to be about is the secret lives we all lead. (And if you think you don't lead one, you're delusional.) That's what all drama is about, isn't it? Talking about what "really" goes on in our lives through the stories we tell each other. This movie just chooses to zero in on the sorts of things we'd rather not think too deeply about because they're creepy and unpleasantly personal. I have to admit, I sort of liked that. Even when I was squirming.

One thing I found interesting about the characters was how they tended to embody contrasting and overlapping urges and actions within themselves and in relation to one another. The meek and jittery fellow with violently angry sex fantasies. The has-it-all housewife and upbeat spinmeister who meddles incessantly, smiles constantly, congratulates herself for her insights into her siblings and parents, and has absolutely no idea that she is living a nightmare in her own home. The hapless pre-teen who is obsessed with his sexuality, trying desperately to seek reassurance about his manhood from his loving father, who just happens to be a pedophile with a thing for little boys. The pedophile with a thing for little boys who just happens to be a man in charge of helping twisted souls sort out more mundane problems as if they're a sickness to be cured and he's in some position to help them. The fat, homely girl who is so starved to be touched that she can't bear to find out how deep it goes by actually being touched. Her desire scares her so much that she kills to keep it at bay, but she really just can't...so she stalks the lonely guy down the hall. The kind and generous suitor who tries everything in the book to qualify to be "the one," including the purchase of extremely expensive and astonishingly tasteful and thoughtful gifts...only to find that-- yet again--he's just not lovable and attractive enough...which means that there is absolutely nothing he will ever be able to "do" to change his fate. And, having realized this, he lashes out in what is the only brutal "fight" in the movie. The rage inside of this straining-to-be-likeable fellow is profound. It's disconcerting to see the schlub speak his mind. I bet every schlub and schlubette in the theatre was silently cheering him on. And the absurdly named Joy (Jane Adams) who trips all over herself to please everyone, listlessly (though anxiously) draining all of her personality away in a quest to avoid being a bother. Big wonder why she's alone! And yet she rejects others for being what or who she is--a big vacant space just waiting for some guy to come along and fill her in.

Which brings up another thing I liked: the way so many of the characters cling to double-standards. The chubby, ugly nerd wants the beautiful and glamourous girl. The chubby, ugly girl just won't do! The beautiful writer who beats herself up as an unworthy fraud, and then proves that she's an unworthy fraud when her unquenchable desire for her abusive chat-pal is overcome by her aesthetic sensitivities and his inability to bring to a room what he sends through the phone line. The sister who gobbles up all of the family secrets to make herself feel indispensible, and then freaks out at the thought that another sister might have a line of communication that doesn't go through her. There are scads of tiny morsels like this in the film. Like throwaway lines. You can feast on them if you don't mind picking at the bones of the poor movie.

The one storyline I did not care for was the parents. First, because it was introduced through an apparent crisis, which goes against the grain of the rest of the narrative. The crises in the film are all muted and mostly off-screen. When we meet the parents through the "he's leaving me" call, it feels like a phony sit-com aside. Like cutting away to Seinfeld's parents in Florida. I thought they were unnecessary to the film because of the flatness and forced-nature of their story. To be honest, I was annoyed at having to watching their scenes. I didn't actually hate these sequences, but they just don't come anywhere near the level of the other scenes in the film. To me, they drag it down. Fortunately, they are few.

I want to put in a good word for the cast here, while I'm rambling. Especially Dylan Baker, Jane Adams, Cynthia Stevenson and Philip Seymour Hoffman. But not Marla Maples. Also, Lara Flynn Boyle was a bit stiff. She overplayed the "brittle" aspect of the character without seeming to really be brittle emotionally. Sometimes I felt that she was reciting her lines as if they were "lines" for effect, to convey something about her character's premeditated fraudulence. Not a bad idea, maybe, but it comes off as bad acting. Everyone else was either superb or very, very good.

What sets Happiness apart from other examinations of "darkness" is its matter-of-fact approach. It isn't sitting in judgment on the scenarios as they play out for us. Usually, Solondz' camera sits dispassionately by while events unfold and words are exchanged. He rarely even "cuts to" stuff, as if he doesn't want to prejudice our impression. If there are going to be any judges of these characters, they're sitting in the theater seats, not the director's chair. Solondz seems uninterested in his own opinion of them. He's more interested in the fact of these people than whatever their pathetic lives might say about the world. My guess is, he believes that such things speak for themselves. Rather like an anthropologist might. But it's important to remember that this is--above all else--his view, through his eyes. It may be jaundiced, but it is deeply compassionate. He may invite our horror at their activities, but he doesn't bolster our sense of disgust by robbing the characters of their humanity. For all the jokes he makes at their expense, he takes incredible pains to sidestep the easy path of making them loathesome, as with Your Friends and Neighbors. The irony is, these folks probably are our friends and neighbors, while the caricatures in the film with that title are deliberately cartoony versions of same. I liked that Solondz allowed them to seem sympathetic, despite their absurdities and crimes. I don't think it's cheerleading on his part at all. He's equally dispassionate toward all aspects of their characters, so he is certainly playing fair under the rules of this film's universe. Rules of his own making, of course. And thank goodness for those.

Review © May 1999 by AboutFilm.Com and the author.
Images © 1998 by Good Machine Releasing and Trimark Pictures. All Rights Reserved.

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