Happiness gives irony a bad name
Todd Solondz has given us one thing to be happy about: we are not the people portrayed on screen in his critically acclaimed film HAPPINESS. It's a gross, disgusting, shameless film that dabbles in the lower depths of the human condition. Does that make it bad? Absolutely not. What makes it bad is the fact that there are so many characters on screen who somehow relate to each other, and yet only one is fully established as a real person. Perhaps Solondz was going for cariacatures of real people, but he fails to do so. Call 1998 the year of sophomoric failures.
First there was Neil LaBute's overrated Your Friends and Neighbors which also suffered from the same problems as this Solondz film. Then there was Mimi Leder's Deep Impact which actually surpassed her boring and mean-spirited The Peacemaker. And now we have HAPPINESS which tries to cram all these characters into its very simple plot, but can't hold together a cohesive story. Solondz first film, Welcome to the Dollhouse, was a great film dealing with social acceptance and exaggerated outlooks on life. That film focused on one central character, allowing us to bond emotionally with her. Here, Solondz tries the Tarantino-style storytelling, mixing many characters together and watching how it will all unravel.
But Solondz is no Tarantino. Where Tarantino observes his characters react, Solondz forces his characters to react, usually in the most absurd ways. Where Tarantino uses the camera to its fullest potential, Solondz goes for realism, the sort that Andre Bazin might appreciate. Mise-en-scene is used extensively, and the result is a stale picture with no creative control (this same detail also flawed LaBute's film). Where Tarantino gets us to sympathize with his characters, Solondz makes us laugh at them. Ironically, we are essentially laughing at the people Welcome to the Dollhouse told us not to laugh at.
HAPPINESS centers around three sisters, Joy (Jane Adams), Helen (Lara Flynn Boyle), and Trish (Cynthia Stevenson). In the opening scene, Joy breaks up with her boyfriend Andy (Jon Lovitz). Andy commits suicide a couple days later. Meanwhile, Helen is a successful novelist who hates what she writes because she's never experienced anything she writes about. Trish is a happily married mother of three, living her dream life. However, her dream life is not all it appears to be. Her husband Bill (Dylan Baker) is the psychiatrist of Allen (Philip Seymour Hoffman), a sexually-repressed obscene phone caller. Meanwhile, Bill is also getting psychiatric help for his pedophilic lusts. In one way or another, every character in the film is related to each other. Allen lives next to Helen; Helen is the sister of Joy; Joy gets obscene phone calls from Allen. These circular paths are one of the only interesting things explored in Solondz film.
The plot comes secondary to the black comedy, which always takes precedence. I'll admit it: I don't normally like realism. Films portraying the lives of everyday people aren't interesting to me. Certainly these characters have their own quirks, but they all seem old and cliche. The most interesting of them all is, strangely, Bill who uses tranquilizers to put his family to sleep so he may rape a young boy. Whenever Bill is on screen, the pace speeds up and the story drags us in. But as soon as it begins to focus on someone else, the movie comes to a halt. Allen's acts are grotesque, but somewhere beneath this one-dimensional character is a real human being, struggling with his conscience and self-esteem.
The irony of the title is almost overwhelming as the film runs its course. We realize from the start that these characters are not happy. Even Trish's optimistic outlook seems like a facade. We also realize that when the film ends, they will not be happy. Is happiness achieveable then? Perhaps happiness is the most unreachable goal of all. No matter what anyone does, it can't be reached. It's a bleak outlook on life, and the film resonates its themes through every frame. An effectively written film would benefit from this resonance, but it makes HAPPINESS seem empty.
(Parental advisory caution: this paragraph contains adult content) Solondz wrote and directed this film, and his direction is in dire need of an overhaul. He does the one thing that bothers me the most about direction: nothing. He takes the camera, puts it in front of the actors, and just lets it run. The only real spark of direction comes during a hilarious scene when Bill takes a rifle into a park and starts shooting people at random. His writing could also use a lot of work as he tries for the same style that he brought to his first feature film. This film makes There's Something About Mary look tame. Solondz screenplay goes for broke on visually-repulsive gags, such as masturbation sequences and what happens to the results. It's the kind of gag that makes you want to gag, usually resulting in the audience groaning in disgust. What makes it so disturbing is that it is not necessary. We don't have to see a dog lap up semen and then go lick some woman's face. We don't have to see a man stick a postcard to a wall with his semen. It's just not necessary, and it's not funny. The biggest pitfall of Solondz script is his lack of focus. Instead of giving us a main character, we are stuck with supporting ones, and we can't emotionally bond with any of them.
The acting is effective to say the least, considering the characters they have to work with. Jane Adams is very good as the introverted Joy Jordan. Adams brings some depth to the otherwise stale character. Philip Seymour Hoffman is good as the overweight and disgusting obscene phone caller. Lara Flynn Boyle tries her hardest to make the most of this role, but there's nothing there to work with. Her only great moment is when she sits next to Hoffman's character. Cynthia Stevenson is good as the chipper housewife (although, I must say she actually reminded me a lot of Frances McDormand's character in Fargo). Rufus Read is surprisingly effective as the son of Bill. Jon Lovitz is a glow of what this film could have been: energetic, funny, and smart. But holding it all together is Dylan Baker, who gives an outstanding performance and makes his character the most interesting. If it weren't for Baker, I fear this movie would have been absolutely horrible. His performance is strong and assured.
HAPPINESS is not rated, but probably would have received the NC-17 rating. It's rated so for graphic sexual situations, profanity, and nudity. Despite the very effective cast, the film falters mostly due to Solondz's writing and direction, both of which needed a lot of help. Instead of exploring sexual deviancy, he exploits it. Why do these characters act this way? Solondz doesn't tell us. How do these characters evolve? They don't. Solondz's themes concerning happiness are genuinely interesting, but they aren't explored fully. Every once in a while, we'll get a taste of what Solondz was reaching for. The rest of the time, we get a portrait of one-dimensional characters following a sketchy plot. This is that type of film you either love or hate. Put me down for the second one.
** out of ****
Reviews by Boyd Petrie