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Scandalous Satire of 'Happiness'

By Michael O'Sullivan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, October 23, 1998

  Recommended


Happiness Director Todd Solondz offers "Happiness" in his new film. (Good Machine)

Director:
Todd Solondz
Cast:
Jane Adams;
Dylan Baker;
Lara Flynn Boyle;
Ben Gazzara;
Jared Harris;
Philip Seymour Hoffman;
Jon Lovitz;
Marla Maples;
Cynthia Stevenson
Running Time:
2 hours, 14 minutes
NR
Not rated


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The first sly joke in Todd Solondz's blistering and brilliant satire of Ozzie and Harriet's American dream is the flagrant irony of its title. The name "Happiness" may not represent truth in advertising, but who would go to see a movie called "Rancor, Denial, Spite and Self-Loathing"?

In the excoriatingly comic sophomore offering from the writer and director of "Welcome to the Dollhouse," emotions such as glee and contentment are in short supply on screen; and the only Joy you'll find is in the name of one of the film's central characters, a loveless 30-year-old loser played with gentle melancholy by the wondrous Jane Adams.

In the film's first moments, when we first meet Joy, she has just broken up with a poor schlemiel named Andy (Jon Lovitz). For several excruciating, silent moments, they stare at each other across the remains of a failed romantic dinner. The exaggerated looks of misery on the faces of the dumper and the dumpee somehow manage to be both wrenchingly sad and riotously funny.

When they finally break the awkward silence, the halting, emotionally naked conversation segues first from inconsolable weeping back to composure, before lurching to bitter, vituperative abuse. It is an abrupt introduction that sets the tone for the rest of the startling and daring film, which forces you to squirm with discomfort even as it compels you to laugh.

Joy is one of three Jordan siblings around whom "Happiness" spins its intricate web of corruption and comedy. Beautiful sister Helen (Lara Flynn Boyle) may have a better love life than Joy and a high-powered career as a famous writer, but there is a hollow ache behind the superficial fabulousness of her lifestyle.

"If only I'd been raped as a child, then I'd know authenticity," she whines, in what is only one of the film's more scandalous laugh lines. Helen is so desperate for stimulation that she flirts with Allen (Philip Seymour Hoffman), a pitiful loner and telephone stalker from down the hall who has been engaging in masturbatory fantasies about his apartment neighbor for some time now.

Sister Trish (Cynthia Stevenson) appears to represent yet another version of having it all. Suburban homemaker, mother of three and wife of a successful psychiatrist (Dylan Baker), Trish is unaware that ideal hubby Bill Maplewood is a pedophile about to drug and rape a couple of neighborhood boys.

Okay, so Solondz is neither shy nor subtle, but neither are his excesses gratuitous. The burlesque betrayal, longing, inadequacy and rampant dysfunction that inform "Happiness" are so deftly handled that the Grand Guignol aspects of his shocking plot – involving not just sexual aberrancies but murder, suicide and theft – seem like everyday occurences – and perhaps they are.

Part of this success is due to the exquisitely cast ensemble-composed of actors, not movie stars. To a man, woman and child, the unforced performers are spot-on. They may be freaks, but they are recognizable freaks. The bile spewed back and forth by Joy, Helen and Trish's estranged parents Lenny (Ben Gazzara) and Mona (Louise Lasser) is caustic, yes, but who hasn't heard it before, in one form or another?

When 11-year-old Billy Maplewood (Rufus Read) has a heart-to-heart chat about his insecurities about his budding sexuality with his creepy dad, there is a squeamish irony implicit in daddy's not-so-paternal interest. Ignoring what we know about the doctor's inappropriate proclivities, however, it is nevertheless quite possible to see in Baker's pedophile a kind and caring father.

Throughout the film, the wry use of syrupy music – Barry Manilow, Montovani, Air Supply – underscores the parodistic flavor of Solondz's edgy drama, softening its potentially heavy impact.

And – as hard as this may be to believe – there is even (dare I say it?) an uplifting element to the sick and twisted humor of "Happiness," whose sarcasm bites, but without snideness. Its acidity has the tart tang of a lemon sourball, whose mouth-puckering pungency is tempered by its own sweet aftertaste, here embodied by the flawed but decent character of Joy, who anchors the film. In Solondz's fun-house of horrors, wretchedness may swirl around her, but she still never loses sight of that elusive quality that she (and we) are ultimately always searching for.

When I stepped out of a recent screening of "Happiness" into the sunshine and brisk air of an early fall day, I carried a sinking feeling in the pit of my stomach along with a song in my heart. It was the jaunty voices of Michael Stipe and Rain Phoenix crooning the film's title tune that played over the closing credits: "Happiness, where are you? I haven't got a clue."

   

   
© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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