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Finding 'Happiness' at the multiplex

Director Todd Solondz offers a new take on the human condition

There's been a lot of ink spilled by film critics and social pundits alike over Todd Solondz's new movie Happiness in the past couple of months, but no amount of hype or slander can really prepare you for the brutal, disturbing, and devastatingly funny nature of this film. You can read (literally) every other magazine on a newsstand right now and discern the story and general gist of the film, but anything other than experiencing the horror and hilarity of Happiness firsthand pales in comparison. Like sex and warfare, it's impossible to describe accurately without having gone through it yourself.

From its very first scene, Happiness sets the tone for a Dante's tour of dysfunctional hell. Joy (Jane Adams) is breaking up with her boyfriend (Jon Lovitz, in prime schlemiel mode). They talk idly about the food and decor of the restaurant, until he begins to sob uncontrollably. "Is it someone else?" he sniffles. "No, it's just you," she replies. He then shows a gift he purchased her, only to snatch it back. "You're shit and I'm champagne," he snarls, and leaves her sitting there stunned. Roll opening credits. Ouch.

It only goes downhill from there, as the rest of our merry crew is introduced: Joy's sisters Helen (Lara Flynn Boyle), a frustrated writer, and Trish (Cynthia Stevenson), a housewife who acts like the second coming of Martha Stewart; Trish's husband Bill, a psychiatrist who's having trouble controlling some very dark impulses (to put it mildly); Allen (character actor extraordinaire Phillip Seymour Hoffman), a chronic obscene phone caller; Kristina (Camryn Manheim), Allen's obsessive neighbor; and the sisters' parents (70's cinema stalwarts Ben Gazzara and Louise Lasser), who may or may not be in the midst of a rather benign divorce.

As we follow these characters and the people who orbit around them in the suburbs of New Jersey, it's tempting to write them off as another batch of casualties from the 90's cinema du jour of negativity, a genre known as the "misanthrope" film (see Altman's Short Cuts, Woody Allen's Deconstructing Harry, or either of Neil LaBute's films for prime ex.ples). Like those films, Happiness relies on ensemble casting, a razor-sharp script, black humor undercut with pathos, and the baser instincts of human nature as prime ingredients in its cinematic stew. Unlike those works, however, this film tends to humanize its characters in a way that allows the viewer to identify with the protagonists even while feeling simultaneously disgusted with them.

Although Happiness isn't c.pletely free of the caricatures that color the "misanthrope" film (Stevenson's soccer mom and Jared Harris's Russian cabbie skirt perilously close to outright parody), Solondz is much more interested in examining the underlying pain of these suburbanites and how they deal with that pain rather than splashing nihilism-for-nihlism's-sake onto the screen. When the seemingly Ward Cleaveresque dad lies in bed after deflowering several young boys and cries to his slumbering and oblivious wife that he's "sick," it's impossible not to feel sorry for him despite the heinous acts he's committed; and the scene when he confesses to his son that, yes, he did "make love" to those boys is all the more devastating for the sympathy the viewer feels for both characters as the wheels of permanent disillusionment are set into motion.

Did I forget to mention that Happiness is a comedy? Yes, and a damn funny one at that, which just adds to the indescribabilty of the piece. Like Solondz's early Welcome To The Dollhouse, it's a mixture of mean-spirited highbrow one-upmanship and lighthearted lowbrow scatological humor (there's a few gags of the, um, "seminal" nature that would make the Farelly Brothers beam) that make you laugh in spite of the pain and viciousness these people seem more than capable of inflicting. The emphasis on appearance over reality in suburbia is a well-worn topic, but rather than a Lynchian peel-back-the-surface-and-peer-at-the-demons-underneath approach, Happiness takes those demons for granted and walks the fine line between laughing at these people and grimacing at how like these people we all are. To quote Sweet Smell Of Success (which the film resembles in tone), Happiness, with its shopping-mall-muzak soundtrack and its sitcom look, is "a real cookie full of arsenic," a pretty looking package that plumbs the depths to which loneliness and the inability to communicate can drive the human animal. Hilarious and horrific, it's hands-down the "feel-bad" movie of the year; see it at your own risk, but you'd be hard-pressed to find a more rewarding viewing this autumnal season.


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Happiness
No Rating
2 hours 19 minutes

Jane Adams
Dylan Baker
Lara Flynn Boyle
Ben Gazzara
Jared Harris
Philip Seymour Hoffman
Jon Lovitz
Marla Maples
Cynthia Stevenson

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