Happiness (1998)

Jane Adams, Jon Lovitz, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Dylan Baker,
The lives of several individuals intertwine as they go about their lives in their own unique ways, engaging in acts society as a whole might find disturbing in a desperate search for human connection.
  • 7.7 /10.0 IMDB Rating:
  • DatePublished:
  • 2018-09-07 Added:
  • Writer:
  • Todd Solondz, Director:
  • Ted Hope, Christine Vachon, Producer:

Trailer:

9 / 10

An oft-misunderstood film about quiet desperation

I wasn't going to write a comment for this one, but after reading all the nasty things said about it, and considering that _Happiness_ was the basis for one of my final undergraduate philosophy papers, I feel a duty to defend it.

First of all, what you've heard is true: this movie is very graphic and almost impossible to sit through without covering your eyes at least once. However, it is worth noting that the most uncomfortable scenes are uncomfortable precisely because of an empathy that the audience establishes with the characters; it is that precisely that empathy which often pulls the audience in a direction opposite from social mores that makes us squirm. I don't know how many of the other critics here are schooled in film theory, but that kind of powerful emotional effect is typically considered a GOOD THING in films. So, really, what most people object to about this film is the content, regardless of what they want other to believe.

That said, this really is a wonderful film precisely because of the level of human understanding, empathy, and reality it encompasses. It portrays human nature from the inside out, where it is least dignified and most pathetic. What we see are a number of people desperately scrabbling around for fulfillment, because they have all to some degree achieved the fulfillment of their desires and found it hollow. Since they don't realize this fact themselves (most people don't), they look for that fulfillment they feel entitled to by using other people. It is this fundamental destructiveness of human desire (written about masterfully by Zizek) which causes the "evils" in this film.

I put "evils" in quotes because, as Solondz's film masterfully demonstrates, there is no evil to be found in this film; there is only humanity and suffering. This absence of moral judgment, though disquieting, is what allows the spectacular sense of empathy and full moral complexity of this film.

Thus, the moral of the film is that the surest way of destroying happiness is to seek it. And that, I feel, is a message that not only makes this a great film but also an artwork of tremendous social value.

7 / 10

Polarizing

There are only a handful of films that have a distinct polarizing affect on the audience--A Clockwork Orange, The Cook, the Thief, His Wife & Her Lover, and I would even lump in American Beauty--these are movies you either get, or you don't. And if you don't get it, you will hate it. Open minded viewers need only apply, and that's certainly the case with "Happiness." I remember leaving the theater absolutely shocked, and not just because of the events on screen. I was shocked that I found the movie so intelligent and oddly entertaining. The actors surely must have felt that, after reading the screenplay. And there are some big actors in this--veterans like Ben Gazzara, Louise Lasser, Elizabeth Ashley, mixing with new talent like Philip Seymour Hoffman, Camryn Manheim, Dylan Baker, Lara Flynn Boyle, etc.

The subject matter is truly unsettling--a parental figure, respected in his community, does some horrible things, and this is the main reason why so many people have a hard time with this movie. Did this material really need to be examined in modern cinema? Well, yes--in the same way that David Lynch had to explore it in Blue Velvet. Happiness is a masterpiece of irony (even in the title), and finds humor in the most unusual and downright bizarre circumstances. You will not see another movie like it. Guaranteed. And fair warning--you could very well despise it. And it's probably a fair estimate that its writer/director, Todd Solondz, doesn't give a damn.

10 / 10

Solondz is one of the best American directors working today. Period.

I don't want to waste time analyzing the plot since others have covered it so well... Basically here we have a Robert Altman-esqe pastiche of characters stemming from a seemingly normal family, plus others who come into their lives. Solondz sets them up and examines their lives, their dreams, their interactions and their facades. What's important is that he doesn't JUDGE these people. And even more importantly, he doesn't condescend to his audience. Like it or not, the people in this movie do exist and I think viewers instantly realize that.

This movie stirs up such strange emotions. It's tough to admit that we may have something in common with a Suburban pedophile, a pathetic dreamer, a pretentious literary snob or a obscene telephone sex stalker and one of the most frightening ideas ever put on film is here: Solondz makes plausible the people we view as being "sick" or generally look down upon aren't that much different than us. They still want the same things we do. And he also questions the ideals America seems to hold most dear, like monogamy and morality. And yeah, happiness. How exactly DO you find happiness? Is ANYONE really happy?

I cannot recommend HAPPINESS enough (neither can I with the director's equally impressive and incisive WELCOME TO THE DOLLHOUSE). It's just an extraordinary movie; surprisingly funny, intelligent, brutally honest, powerful, original and relevant. The cast is thoroughly excellent and Solondz follows his own compass at all times in both the scripting and directing department. He's a brave filmmaker and I really have a lot of admiration for directors and writers who stray away from the tired Hollywood blockbuster formula. Good for some popcorn, sure, but aren't you glad there's other stuff out there to choose from?

Reading some of the other reviews posted here I was surprised at the amount of negative comments. I guess this isn't for everyone out there. If you want a fun night of fantasy escapism or a brainless comedy, don't bother. But if you want a blisteringly funny dose of reality, then don't miss this! Definitely a top contender for My 10 Favorite Movies of the 1990s list.

8 / 10

Dark brilliance

When a film opens with a scene between two people, one breaking up with the other, culminating in the dumped calling the dumper "Shit", you know you're in for something dark with this film. When the scene is followed by the simple opening title "Happiness" written in pretty cursive writing, you know it's going to be ironic as well. "Happiness" was written and directed by Todd Solondz, the mind behind the film "Welcome to the Dollhouse", a film that was fantastic but really hard to watch if the viewer has any kind of heart. "Happiness" follows in the same vein, though this time, instead of centering around one character, Solondz puts a New Jersey family at the center of the film and develops new characters through their relationship with the family.

Overseeing the family is Mona Jordan (Lasser), the matriarch of the family who has just been told by her husband that he no longer loves her. Lenny Jordan (Gazzara) is simply sick of being tied to someone continuously, while insisting that there is "no one else". Joy Jordan (Adams) is a serially employed thirty-something single female who is constantly belittled by her family and ignored by society. She is most close to her sister Trish Maplewood (Stevenson), a stay at home mother with three kids who likes to say she "has it all". Her husband Bill (Baker) is a psychiatrist who outwardly appears to be a stoic family man, but is actually a pedophile who, within five minutes of the introduction of his character, goes to a convenience store to pick up a teen heartthrob magazine so he can masturbate in the back seat of his car to the pictures of the young boys on the cover. The third sister in the family is Helen Jordan (Boyle), an author recently made semi-famous for an angst-ridden published diary (filled with lies) who has a very high opinion of herself and a way of making others feel badly about themselves while never raising her smooth-as-glass voice or making her jabs obvious. Her neighbor Allen (Hoffman) is in love with her, only he is so inept at socialization and unable to approach her that he attempts to satisfy his desires by first making random obscene phone calls to various women, and then making Helen a target herself. Another neighbor, Kristina (Manheim) is an insecure, quiet woman who is constantly trying to befriend Allen, possibly as a love interest.

There is quite a cast of characters to this ensemble picture, and the story lines become intricate and increasingly more complicated as the film progresses. "Happiness" is filled with excellent character actors (at the top of the list would certainly be Hoffman) but the most compelling character and character portrayal would be Baker's character of Bill Maplewood. Obviously, a film that deals unflinchingly with pedophilia and child rape, particularly under the guise of a "dark comedy" is going to be held under closer observation, but even under this scrutiny, Baker's portrayal is absolutely flawless. While his character is a monster, Baker is able to provide a human side to it, where I was left thinking he was a terrible man, but also had sympathy for him because he had a sickness. There are not many actors I can think of that could pull off this role as stupendously as Baker did. Baker was the clear star of the film in my opinion, but the performances of every person in the cast were fantastic as well, particularly the young boy who played Baker's oldest son.

As I stated earlier, "Happiness" is rife with irony because on the surface, everyone is miserable. However, it soon becomes relatively clear that this is just how these people are, and each of them to some extent ARE living in happiness, as misguided as it may appear to be. Everyone ends up being hurt or disappointed on some level, but they are still together and seem to be satisfied to be in the destructively emotional rut they are in. Solondz, who really has his finger on the pulse of misery, (Just like when, upon hearing that Stephen King gets inspiration for his books from his dreams I was glad that he at least makes millions from being terrified at night, I would hate to get a front row seat in Solondz's psyche) really gives the audience something to chew with "Happiness". I loved the chances he took with the subject matter, I loved the performances, and I loved the film as a whole because it was just so damn well done. It's not an easy film to watch, and it's not an entirely pleasant one to watch at times, but it is truly a piece of genius with the way it is intricately put together; envision trying to glue tiny shards of crystal into place with a tweezers ? the characters in "Happiness" are as fragile and ready to shatter at any moment, whether they can see it for themselves or not. 8/10 --Shelly

8 / 10

Sex: it's on everyone's mind!

The sexual foibles, perversities and hang-ups of a trio of sisters, their parents, neighbors and friends--told in a low, slightly monotone, key. It's a rich carousel of scared, scary lives with an inter-connecting pattern: the disillusionment of coupling--and how one keeps trying to succeed in this department despite the humiliations. Pretty funny once you get the idea--and only if you're attuned to this kind of sick black humor. Not for the faint of heart, but extremely clever concoction from talented writer-director Todd Solondz (whose first film, "Welcome To The Dollhouse", struck me as a stunt). This one is frank, funny, and very warped--almost over-the-top in places, especially the ending--yet kept on track by the terrific performances. Some might compare this to the later "Magnolia" (they're both tapestry films), but "Happiness" is superior, and certainly less pretentious. *** from ****