Now, if it had all been the Louise Lasser, Ben Gazzara movie, THAT might have been cool.
Sometimes, this is a comedy- a pretty funny one that usually falls into traditional rom-com territory but that also isn't afraid to have some dark humour and push the boundaries a little bit. At other times, this is a drama that will probably deeply upset you. It all feels like a bit of a cruel joke really but then you see that, well, there's nothing else like this is there? Why can't a rom-com also be about the, um, 'stuff' that this film is about? Why can't I laugh one minute and want to cry in horror the next? This is actually a truly groundbreaking film. Groundbreaking but also, what the hell did I just watch!? Groundbreaking/what the hell did I just watch!? about sums it up really.
The cast are great and the script is well-written and the film looks good and blah, blah- blah, once you start watching it you'll be too gobsmacked to even try and look at such things critically. This film will make your jaw drop repeatedly, It will make you laugh, possibly make you cry, and also... what the hell did I just watch!?
Love it loathe it- you aren't going to find another film quite like this one anytime soon.
First impression: if Louis CK wrote something very, very fucked up, like more than usual.
But alas, not everyone is equipped with an endless supply of dopamine - some, unfortunately, are more fruitful in their ecstasy than others. 1998's "Happiness," written and directed by black comedy master Todd Solondz, is about that small percentage of individuals, who either spend their days putting on a happy face in order to be culturally accepted or succumb to their misery.
A film so downbeat in its storytelling strategies should be unattractive - I'm sure most would prefer to sit through something delightful like "Gentlemen Prefer Blondes" - but Solondz isn't the type to drown in his own death wishes a la Michelangelo Antonioni. He, instead, sees the twisted humor in the widespread suffering of his characters, looking at mini-tragedies such as disappointingly uninterested one-night-stands, unfulfilling work experiences, and joyless sex lives as if they were sitcom tropes. Imagine one of those funny scenes in a "Friends" or a "Seinfeld" where someone says the wrong thing, where the wrong character shows up at the wrong time, where the wrong outcome is produced. This time, though, the comedy isn't bright - it's bruising.
What Solondz's goal is is hard to say. Is he interested in creating a social satire specifically pointing a finger at the white upper-middle class? A character study that focuses on unlucky - some terrible - people who crave contentment but will possibly never find it? Here, we aren't so pressed to find out. We can only watch in inexplicable hypnotization as we decide whether to laugh, to cry, or to wince. If we're lucky, maybe we'll experience all three.
"Happiness" circles around three sisters, Joy (Jane Adams), Helen (Lara Flynn Boyle), and Trish (Cynthia Stevenson). When we first meet Joy, meek and kind-hearted, she is in the process of dumping a self-pitying loser (Jon Lovitz) who verbally abuses her for not reciprocating his premature love. Nearing thirty and completely aimless, Joy causes alarm in Trish, a cheerful housewife married to Bill (Dylan Baker), a therapist by day and a child molester by night. Trish is the kind of woman who believes you won't amount to much if you aren't married and are without kids; Bill is the kind of man smart enough to know what a horrible person he is while still being too stupid to control himself. Helen, the most successful of the sisters, is a well-off poet tired of the endless praise from love interests, literary critics, and the public. She craves disappointment, to feel like she isn't good enough for once.
Also connected to this cast of thoroughly messed up characters are Allen (Philip Seymour Hoffman), a mouth-breathing pervert who tells his therapist (who just so happens to be Bill) of his wildest sexual fantasies but is only confident enough to briefly shout them out to anonymous women on the telephone (two callers just so happen to be Joy and Helen; Helen is also his neighbor); Mona (Louise Lasser) and Lenny (Ben Gazzara), the long-married parents of the sisters whose relationship is shattered after Lenny calls for separation in order to achieve much desired "alone time"; and Billy (Rufus Read), Bill and Trish's awkward preteen son more concerned with climaxing for the first time than with any other sort of middle-school based emotional issues.
"Happiness" is a challenging film. Apart from the sympathetic Adams, who has a presence timid enough to make you want to give her a bear hug, the ensemble is comprised of characters not conventionally likable or unlikable; they exist in a middle-ground of average, monstrously selfish one moment and sympathetic the next. These are people we'd meet on the street, appearing convincingly mild-mannered in the scope of a glimpse. But once doors close and fears are amplified, they turn into relatable, if not pathetic, connoisseurs of depression, searching for happiness but unsure of where exactly to find it.
Covering their self-hatred is a visible irony represented by pastel colors and interludes of sitcom-ready orchestral music; when one traumatic scene ends, we can expect Solondz to transition to the next as if a jaw-drop is normal, as if a disturbing confessional is a witty one-liner in disguise. He is the finest director of black comedy I've ever seen - everything about "Happiness" should be dead serious. And yet, we find ourselves laughing in-between grimaces, a description more literal than any other time I've used it.
It's not an easy film, but there's something consuming about the way it explores the underbellies of what's considered "normal" in American society; what happens when the all-American dad is actually a serial rapist, when the successful author yearns for unanimous panning that will never arrive, when the 60-something married couple destroys the idea that marriage can last a lifetime by proclaiming boredom? The sly subversion of "Happiness" is what makes it such an excellent film - but I can only recommend it to the most cynical of viewers. Most will be unsure what they should be thinking. Even I don't know.