Friday, January 30, 2009


Just how much dramatic irony can you pack into one word? Todd Solondz seems willing to find out with the title of Happiness, a vicious social satire of the misery of human existence. Constructed as an ensemble piece, Happiness uses an Altmanesque ensemble piece to examine how each of these self-centered individuals struggle for contentment in this world, and how they fail utterly. The film also stands as the logical outgrowth of the geek explosion of the mid-90s that gave us quasi-indie wonders (they started out independent but all got signed quickly) like Kevin Smith, Robert Rodriguez and Quentin Tarantino. The 90s brought about geek protagonists, and Solondz uses geeks--or at least social outcasts--to make his point.

The film opens with Joy (Jane Adams), who has just broken up with her sadsack boyfriend (Jon Lovitz). He gives her a laughable present (a mail-order ashtray even though she doesn't smoke), only to snatch it back in defiance. Joy is one of three sisters, the other two being Trish (Cynthia Stevenson) and Helen (Lara Flynn Boyle). Their parents, Lenny and Mona (Ben Gazzara and Louise Lasser) have been married for 20 years, but Lenny wants to leave, not for another woman, but for solitude.

We also meet Allen (Philip Seymour Hoffman), the geekiest character of them all, a computer nerd who cannot speak to women. He details his nervous sexual fantasies to his therapist Bill (Dylan Baker), only to conclude that he'd never act on these fantasies because he's too boring. By this time Bill has become so bored he's thinking about what he needs to get done the rest of the day. The only woman Allen can speak to is his neighbor Kristina (Camryn Manheim), a fat woman who loves Allen but has as much trouble saying it to him as he does speaking to other women.

Slowly the stories play out, and the characters intertwine. Trish is married to Bill, who seems proper and calm but has terrible dreams where he kills people for freedom. On his way home from his session with Allen, he buys a teen magazine and masturbates to the photos. Then he spots a boy on his son Billy's Little League team and, when the boy comes back to his house for a sleepover, he drugs his family and molests the boy (thankfully, the act is not shown).

Allen, in the interim, gets out his sexual frustration by going through the phonebook and making obscene calls to women. Eventually he dials Helen. In an earlier conversation, Helen told her sister how bored she had become with casual sex with countless narcissistic men; therefore, Allen's heavy breathing and dirty talk arouse her and she redials the number to ask for sex. Allen gets nervous and returns home and is comforted by Kristina. Allen's full of too much nervosa to act on his impulses, and Kristina hates sex. They'd make a compatible couple if Allen could see clearly. Philip Seymour Hoffman plays his part brilliantly; he completely captures the nervous, never comfortable body language of someone afraid to talk to women.

Many films have an ebb and flow, but the lives of each of the characters in the film only ever seems to get darker. Joy's ex- kills himself over her, and we soon learn she has a history with losers and cheats. Trish continues to live her life as chirpily as ever, unaware of her husband's activities. We learn that one character is a murderer. Mona continues to hang on to her marriage as if it's the only thing keeping her alive, but Lenny has seemingly moved beyond feeling. For him, cutting himself off from others would only stop all the noise distracting him from being alone. Of all of them, he is perhaps the best they can hope for, because he has moved beyond the self-pity on which everyone else sustains themselves.

But it's Dylan Baker's Bill who walks away with the film. There's a slippery slope involved with making a child molestor three-dimensional, but Hollywood has always used that as an excuse to just not deal with the topic and portray any and all pedophiles as pure evil, Lucifers walking amongst us. Baker, however, crafts a complex performance of a man who forever battles against his impulses. He molests his son's friend, but we see him in scenes with that son as a loving and caring father. Early on, Billy asks his father about what it means to "come," and Bill gently explains it to the boy and is supportive of him as he enters puberty. Bill speaks to his son with the same honesty in the most devastating moment of the film, when Billy asks his father if he did something to his friends.

Solondz uses Bill as the emotional crux of the story: he, along with the entire film, illustrates a mixture of sexual perversion and empathy. He plays Bill not entirely unlike Peter Lorre played the child killer in M: you view him with a perfect (and infinitely unsettling) balance between pity and revulsion. Despite all this, Solondz never exploits these characters and, though his comedy is at times too forced, he crafted an immeasurably dark look into the hopelessness of the human condition.

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