Director: Todd Solondz
Cast: Jane Adams, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Dylan Baker, many others
My Rating: 8/10
PLOT: Various characters, some linked, some not, struggle with the search for happiness in their lives.
Before I begin, a little history:
Todd Solondz’s film Happiness was so controversial that the Sundance Film Festival actually refused to screen it. It was originally financed by October Films, but October’s owner, Seagrams, upon seeing the final product, dropped the film like a hot potato. Happiness initially received an NC-17 rating, which would have immediately limited distribution opportunities, as well as created advertising difficulties. Therefore, it was released unrated, uncut, and unaltered.
I remember reading about this movie years ago in Roger Ebert’s four-star review; he eventually labeled it one of the top ten movies of 1998. I got curious, so, since this was in the days before Netflix – and I’m not sure Netflix would have made it available anyway – I snapped up the first DVD copy I could find and watched it.
And…um…oh my. There are dark comedies (Pulp Fiction), and there are Dark Comedies (Dr. Strangelove). And then there are DARK COMEDIES. Happiness is a DARK COMEDY.
Remember that scene in Pulp Fiction when Marvin gets shot in the back of the car? Remember the blood that covered the rear windshield and the blood and pieces of flesh and skull that were peppered all over John Travolta and Samuel L. Jackson? Horrific, right? But it was such a shocking moment that I remember laughing hysterically for the first few seconds after the incident, so that I missed the next few lines of dialogue from Vincent and Jules.
Happiness is like that. You’re watching scenes of emotional devastation, but the CIRCUMSTANCES under which they’re happening are…kinda funny. Or at least funny in that shocked kind of way like in Pulp Fiction. Your brain can’t quite believe what your eyes and ears are feeding it, and so you laugh. At least, I did when I recently re-watched it with my girlfriend last night. She didn’t do a lot of laughing. Diff’rent strokes, what are you gonna do?
The plot: Once there were three sisters, Joy (Jane Adams), Helen (Lara Flynn Boyle), and Trish (Cynthia Stevenson). Joy is an aspiring 30-something songwriter who still lives at home and has just broken up with her boyfriend in a scene that’s right at the top of the film and sets the appropriate mood: somewhere between funny and discomfort. Helen is a moderately successful writer who has written a bestselling collection of poems about childhood rape. Cynthia is a mother of two boys, married to a successful psychiatrist named Bill (Dylan Baker). She seems to be the happiest of the three sisters, but she’s that kind of person who says things like, “You know, we all thought you would never amount to much, but NOW look at you!”
Cynthia’s husband, Bill, has a dark secret, one which I will not divulge here, but it’s revealed fairly early in the film. He is a man so desperately in search of happiness that his efforts to fulfill his desires dance on the edge of farce. He is so compelled to be happy (or at least what passes for happy in his mind) that he is, at one point, reduced to, um, “interfering with himself” in the backseat of his own car in broad daylight, risking discovery at every second by passers-by.
I haven’t even mentioned the part where he drugs the tuna fish sandwich. Or ditches the PTA meeting for an impromptu “rendezvous.” Or has a conversation with his 11-year-old son about why length doesn’t matter. But enough about Bill for now.
Helen, the author, feels like a faker because she was, in fact, NEVER raped as a child, so her happiness and success is built on lies. She wishes her work could have more immediacy or legitimacy. Then she could be REALLY happy. And she might have a way: Daryl (Philip Seymour Hoffman), her next-door neighbor, is so obsessed with her that he finds it impossible to talk to her in person. So he starts making obscene phone calls to her while he’s at work. He gets the shock of his life when, after one call, she star-69s him and says, “I want to see you.”
And Joy…poor, ironically-named Joy. Her trials and tribulations in the movie are more relatable than the others I’ve mentioned previously, so I’ll leave them alone for now.
Now, the subject matter of the movie has engendered much discussion. Are we, as an audience, expected to empathize with these characters? Speaking as a guy who has had his fair share of heartbreaking crushes, I’ve gotta say I did empathize a bit with Daryl, the phone pervert. I certainly don’t condone his behavior, but I was achingly aware of his thought processes as he stood in the elevator next to the object of his desire, desperate to talk to her, certain that she represents true happiness, but eternally unable to do anything about it.
I also identified a little with Kristina, played by Camryn Manheim. She lives a couple of doors down from Daryl and is always knocking on his door to deliver tidbits of news. (“Our doorman was found bludgeoned to death in his apartment this morning…supposedly his penis was missing.”) She is clearly crushing on Daryl, but Daryl is oblivious in the face of his own crush. Their relationship, or lack thereof, pays off in a scene set in a diner during which a secret is revealed that sees the Marvin scene from Pulp Fiction and raises.
But what about Bill? While I can relate to characters like Kristina and Daryl and Joy, what is this distasteful nonsense doing in this movie? Let’s make no bones about it: Bill is a monster, enslaved to desires he can’t understand; he can only bend to their will. Does that make him an object of sympathy? SHOULD that make him an object of sympathy? There’s an excruciating scene where Bill’s son asks him very, VERY specific questions about his compulsion, and to our amazement, instead of shying away from them, Bill tearfully answers them honestly and directly, including that last question that I had completely forgotten was in the movie. Does this honesty make Bill honorable? Previous scenes have shown that Bill is always honest with his son, and he makes the decision not to break that streak, even when the answers are shameful and, probably for some, gag-inducing.
My take: Bill’s crimes and desires have made him irredeemable, in my book. But…BUT…he did the right thing by being honest with his son. In that ONE sense, I have to give the character props. If I were in his place, I’m not sure I would have done the same thing.
Geez, I just realized I haven’t even MENTIONED another subplot about the parents of the three sisters who have relocated to Florida and are undergoing a separation (NOT a divorce!), even though they’re still living in the same house. Eh, I’ll leave that one alone, too.
So ANYWAY. Whenever I read a review that gets this long-winded, I always find myself asking the question, “Yeah, but is it any GOOD?”
Yes, it is. At its core, it’s just about people who want to be happy, and the lengths to which they’ll go to achieve it. Who can’t relate to that? It’s literate, compelling, and funny, but you may hate yourself for laughing afterwards. That’s the genius of the movie. It creates these situations that you laugh at, but when you try to describe the scene to your friends, they just stare at you in abject horror.
(I give it an 8 instead of a higher score just on the basis of the “icky” feeling I get when watching some of the scenes. You’ve been warned.)