Happiness


This film will delight some and shock others, but it won’t leave anyone indifferent. It’s got both the depraved humor of “There’s Something About Mary” and the sexual dysfunction of “Your Friends & Neighbors”. This is only the second film of Todd Solondz (“Welcome to the Dollhouse” was his debut), but you can already tell that the man’s gifted. His film walks a real thin line between black comedy and plain bad taste, but it never drops aside. Thanks to Solondz’ sharp writing and assured direction, “Happiness” is surprisingly equilibrated. Even in the darkest, sickest moments, there’s always some kind of humor. Yet this ain’t slapstick; what makes this comedy superior to most is that it remains painfully sincere.

The film follows a bunch of pathetic losers, and if their despair and cluelessness is sometimes hilarious, you can’t help but feel sorry for them. These people are flawed, but mostly, they’re just really lonely. God knows there’s nothing worse than feeling that no one really cares about you. The film is also a bit like David Lynch’s “Blue Velvet”, as it takes a look at the (very) dark side of seemingly happy suburbia. It’s just amazing how Solondz seems to care and to laugh at his characters at the same time. I’ve rarely seen a film that used irony in such a lethal way. To give you a hint, don’t expect to ever hear Air Supply‘s All Out of Love the same way ever again!

This is an ensemble piece, and great performances are essential for the picture to work. The actors are all superb, despite the uneasiness of what they’re put through. Philip Seymour Hoffman plays a grown man who never evolved from the 12 year old geek he once was. Greasy haired with ugly glasses, he lives alone in a crappy apartment, spending most of his time in a world of pornography and obscene phone calls. He’s obsessed with the girl next door, but she doesn’t even know he exists. The only person who notices him is the fat lady across the hall (Camryn Manheim), who’s as sad and lonely as him. If the incredibly convincing Hoffman is the film’s pitiful central character, most of the action actually revolves around the problems of a dysfunctional New Jersey family. Jane Adams is unforgettable as the melancholy Joy, a cute young woman who’s so nice she’s pathetic. She has neither a husband, kids, or a career. All she’s got is her guitar and some hope.

Her sisters are really not helping. By strutting their pseudo-happiness, they keep reminding her of her underachievement. Lara Flynn Boyle plays a trendy writer who’s bored of success, while Cynthia Stevenson is the typical annoyingly cheerful housewife. Yet if everything looks bright for her, she might have her load of crap coming. Her parents are on the verge of divorce (well, they’re still together but their marriage is loveless), her older son is puzzled about his hormones, and her husband (Dylan Baker, riveting), a seemingly wholesome psychiatrist, likes kids a bit too much. The film also features very enjoyable cameos from Jon Lovitz and Molly Shannon.

“Happiness” is definitively a film to see. It’s more than just controversial: it’s intelligent and cinematically achieved. It’s not about pedophilia or obscene phone calls: it’s about lonely people who try to find some enjoyment whatever sick way they can. Some happiness…