movie film review | chris tookey


  Happiness Review
Tookey's Rating
9 /10
Average Rating
8.75 /10
Joy Jordan: Jane Adams, Helen Jordan: Lara Flynn Boyle, Trish Maplewood: Cynthia Stevenson
Full Cast >

Directed by: Todd Solondz
Written by: Todd Solondz

Released: 1998
Origin: US
Colour: C
Length: 140

Various Americans try to connect emotionally and sexually.
Reviewed by Chris Tookey

Bookmark and Share

A story of various individuals who are all, in different ways, losers. Seven of them belong to the same family, though the only family gathering is a cheerless one, towards the end. It is the characters' sense of isolation and their fear of being alone that resonate throughout the film. The only scenes where members of the family reveal their true emotions to each other are a sequence in which a psychiatrist (Dylan Baker) attempts to help his 11 year-old son (Rufus Read) through the onset of puberty.

These scenes are enough to make anyone uneasy, since we know that the father is sexually attracted to boys of his son's age and is wrestling with his own warring instincts towards the child: paternal and predatory. The scenes are hard to watch, but brilliantly written, acted and directed - and they serve a moral purpose.

They remind us that even paedophiles have normal feelings too. Without condoning anything the offender does to children, without titillating us with his acts, and without saying that he does not deserve severe punishment, Solondz shows us why we should not demonize such people - because in doing so, we behave as they do towards their victims: we treat them as objects, and deny them their humanity.

Dylan Baker courageously produces the most authentic portrait of a paedophile since Peter Lorre's in Fritz Lang's M.

Solondz will be criticised for rubbing people's noses in the sordid sex lives of inadequate people; but there must be room in the cinema for analysing the dark sides of humanity, as long as this is done with taste and wisdom. There will be those who find the subject-matter - sexual deviancy, child abuse, self-abuse, self-destructive behaviour of various kinds - too disgusting to cope with, and they should avoid this movie.

But Happiness is a fine film that hardly ever stoops to the cheap gag, and constantly confounds our expectations.

The character who comes across immediately as a sicko - a stalker who likes to terrorise women with obscene phone calls (Philip Seymour Hoffman) - turns out to be no more sad and twisted than the glamorous writer he's pursuing (Lara Flynn Boyle, hilariously pretentious) and less of a menace to society than the amorous fat lady who lives down the corridor (Camryn Manheim).

The loveless marriage between two elderly people who can't stand each other (Ben Gazzara and Louise Lasser) survives - but only because the alternative loneliness is too ghastly to contemplate. Many will find this cold-eyed observation of Darby and Joanhood horribly authentic.

Even the most attractive character, a droopy 30 year-old bachelor girl called Joy (Jane Adams), suffers a series of personal and professional embarrassments as she causes the suicide of one boyfriend (Jon Lovitz, terrific in the film's opening scene), and is ripped off by a seemingly romantic Russian (Jared Harris). The crowning irony is that she is patronised even by her sister (Cyntha Stevenson, in a Penelope Keith-style role), who thinks she has it all but is in fact married to the man who's a serial child-rapist.

All this may sound tacky, tasteless and cruel, but curiously it isn't. Solondz's sympathy for the underdog was visible in his previous film, Welcome to the Dollhouse, and saves him from patronizing even his creepiest and most complacent characters.

The result is social observation which compares favourably with the very best films of Robert Altman and Mike Leigh. The actors play every part with intelligence, sympathy and integrity. Solondz doesn't claim that his characters are likeable, and he certainly finds them funny; but he also illuminates their pathos and humanity. His argument is that people are not either good or evil, but on a continuum of dysfunctionality.

The dialogue is sharp, authentic and fresh (there are obscenities, but for once they are used to dramatic and comic effect). A word of praise, too, for Robbie Kondor's witty, cod middle-of-the-road score.

Happiness is not for everyone, but it's the most innovative, challenging film to have come out of America since Pulp Fiction.

"I realize some of the material is shocking, but it's out there in the media every day. Celebrities are always talking about their own abuse. TV news programs discuss the atrocities of children being killed or raped. It has a freak-show quality; it's titillating. Still, I don't think anybody could use the word titillating about my movie. I hope people see there's a certain...integrity to the proceedings."

(Todd Solondz)

Key to Symbols